The jury system we currenly have in the United States is ailing. It is beginning to fail us. O.J. Simpson being found not guilty is just one example of that problem. People with loads of evidence against them are found not guilty, while others with far less evidence against them are found guilty. Mass murderers are often sentenced to life in prison, while many others who commit just one murder are sentenced to death. People tried separately for the same crime often get much different verdicts and/or much different sentences. I know the Constitution guarantees the accused a right to a jury of his or her peers, but times have changes over the last 200-plus years and we need to make adjustments accordingly. There are two changes I would suggest we make as soon as possible.
First, we should implement professional juries. There are many reasons why the average person should not serve on a jury. Many of them do not want to serve and find it to be an inconvenience. People with this attitude are likely to focus more on getting the trial over with rather than taking the time to come to reasonable and thoughtful decision. Other people come to a jury with an agenda. They have strong opinions one way or the other about the defendant and/or the case, but will mask these feelings in order to get a seat on the jury. These people are unlikely to be persuaded by evidence which runs counter to their preconceived notions.
Of course, there are many jurors who feel that it is their civic duty to serve and make an honest attempt to seek the truth. But even these people often make flawed jurors. Very often they will use things such as defendants’ courtroom demeanor, the way they dress, the emotions they show or the lack thereof, their facial expressions, etc. to help determine guilt or innocence. So what if someone seems arrogant in court? So what if they show no emotion? So what if they dress inappropriately in the courtroom? While it might be appropriate to take some of these items into consideration at sentencing time, none of these issues make a person any more or any less guilty and should not be considered as a part of making that determination. Professional juries would be trained to disregard everything but the facts when determining whether someone is guilty of a crime. It would be their fulltime job and if they had any kind of agenda, it would come to light over time. They would also be subject to a judicial review board on a regular basis to re-evaluate their fitness as professional jurors.
Second, we should put an end to the deliberating process. Jurors should not be allowed to speak with one another and should vote their conscience by secret ballot. This is needed because many jurors do not have the courage of conviction to vote what they really think, but are often intimidated into voting with the majority or with those who are the most persuasive or strong-willed. Of course, a change like this would make a unanimous verdict almost impossible, so a two-thirds majority should be required for a guilty verdict. Anything less would result in the defendant being found not guilty. There would be no hung juries. In the case of sentencing (except for death penalty cases), a simple majority would determine the sentence, with the judge acting as a tie-breaker. A three-quarters majority would be required to sentence someone to death. If a majority, however less than the required three-quarters, votes in favor of death, the next harshest available sentence would automatically be imposed, regardless of the other votes.
Having an impartial jury reach a just verdict along with making sure an innocent person is never convicted should be the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, our jury system is broken and doesn’t deliver this desired outcome nearly often enough. It is due for a much needed overhaul in the form of the changes I have suggested.