By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
As predictable as mud after a rainstorm, another controversial jury verdict has been followed by another round of criticism of juries, including the suggestion that citizen fact-finders simply aren't up to the task. After George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin, popular and media reactions have focused not just on the result, but on the jury, and the institution of jury trials as well. For many, it was an O.J. Simpson or a Casey Anthony moment: Guilt that seemed so obvious to the public at large somehow escaped the attention of those in the jury box. Representative of some of the responses, writer Richard Baker wrote for In These Times that the Zimmerman jurors were "totally unprepared," before more broadly concluding that "most people lack the sophisticated skill sets of reasoning and logic needed to be a juror." In similar fashion, Diane Francis, Editor-at-Large for The National Post wrote in Huffington Post that the Zimmerman verdict "calls into question the validity of the jury system" since it so often happens that "juries fall short."
Beyond the media response, sentiments like these are echoed in hallway and social media conversations. We love the jury system...except when we don't trust its results. And that level of public trust has important consequences. For those of us who serve America's justice system in varied ways, we have a stake in that conversation. More broadly, living in a country with a uniquely high commitment to jury trials, it is important that we help to defend that system when it is at its most vulnerable. To be sure, there are valid criticisms of the jury system and good ideas on ways our litigation process could be improved. But criticizing jury verdicts based solely on the popularity of the outcome is unfair and should be countered. A lack of popular support for juries has an influence on the political agenda, aiding the cause of those who would limit juror power, and draining support for reforms that could repair and promote that system. So, taking this responsibility of those who work in litigation seriously, here is my effort to swing back at a few of those who have used the Zimmerman verdict as an excuse to take an unfair shot at American juries.