Sunday, June 30, 2013

Jury Service: Reflections--What Exactly IS the Responsibility of Jurors?

This post is my third and final reflection on my recent experience of a voir dire during a term of jury service in Orleans Parish Criminal Court. During a voir dire, potential jurors are questioned to determine who will be the best jurors for the particular trial. Although the judge and attorneys at this particular voir dire were polite and friendly with us potential jurors, I still found aspects of the system to be disturbing. This post will focus on the responsibility of jurors.

What exactly IS the responsibility of jurors?


According to the judge at the voir dire in which I participated, jurors are judges only of the FACTS. Jurors are to set aside any consideration of whether the law in question is a fair law or not or whether the sentence (if the defendant should be found guilty) will be a reasonable one or not. The jurors must simply consider the facts by answering this question: Has the evidence presented by the prosecution proved to me, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did the actions of which he or she is accused? If the answer is yes, the jury is to bring a verdict of guilty; if not, a verdict of not guilty

The case under consideration for this particular voir dire involved a charge of possessing cocaine two years ago in an amount between 28 and 200 grams. Therefore, the jury would be asked to determine whether or not we were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution's evidence that (1) the defendant possessed something on the date in question, (2) the something possessed was cocaine, and (3) the amount of cocaine possessed was between 28 and 200 grams. If yes--guilty. If no--not guilty.

Our feelings and beliefs about whether or not cocaine should be a legal or an illegal drug or  what sentence would likely be given if the defendant should be found guilty were not to enter into our deliberations. We were only to judge the FACTS. The law was the province of the legislature, and any sentence was the province of the judge. The province of the jury was limited to the facts.


I had some serious concerns about the possibility of a prison sentence in the case of a guilty verdict, which I expressed to the judge when I was questioned during the voir dire. Consequently, I was not chosen for the jury.

I strongly suspected that the sentence for possession of between 28 and 200 grams of cocaine would include time in prison, probably the infamous Orleans Parish Prison (the O.P.P). Sending a person to the O.P.P is like sending that person to criminal school. I find this an unreasonable punishment for someone convicted of cocaine possession in this amount. The charge did not include any violent offense and was two years old. In no way did I want to see someone sent to prison, and definitely not the O.P.P., simply for possessing cocaine two years ago.

If the prosecuting attorney were to prove to me beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did indeed possess between 28 and 200 grams of cocaine two years ago, I (as a juror) would (according to the judge) be obliged to find the defendant guilty, even though this would lead to (for me) the unacceptable sentence of a prison term in the O.P.P.

And I have since found that my suspicions about the sentence were right. The website, on its "Louisiana Cocaine Laws" page states:

Any person who knowingly or intentionally possesses twenty-eight grams or more, but less than two hundred grams, of cocaine or of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine or of its analogues as provided in Schedule II(A)(4) of R.S. 40:964, shall be sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment at hard labor of not less than five years, nor more than thirty years, and to pay a fine of not less than fifty thousand dollars, nor more than one hundred fifty thousand dollars.

Thus, I was correct. In fact, a prison sentence of between 5 and 30 years at hard labor is MANDATED for possession of between 28 and 200 grams of cocaine. I believe that a far more effective sentence for this non-violent offense would be some combination of community service, participation in a drug rehabilitation program, and fine.

Even though the judge had explained that the jury is in no way responsible for sending someone to prison--the sentence being the province of the judge and not the jury--I disagree with this chopping up of responsibilities. If I bring a verdict of guilty for a non-violent drug-possession charge, knowing that the sentence will likely or definitely be a term in prison, then I have most certainly participated in sending someone to prison.

So, again, what exactly IS the responsibility of jurors?


There exists a broader view of juror responsibility--the view said to have been held by the authors of the Constitution of the United States and of the Bill of Rights. This view is presented on the homepage of the Fully Informed Jury Association website:

The primary function of the independent juror is not, as many think, to dispense punishment to fellow citizens accused of breaking various laws, but rather to protect fellow citizens from tyrannical abuses of power by government. The Constitution guarantees you the right to trial by jury. This means that government must bring its case before a jury of The People if government wants to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property. Jurors can say no to government tyranny by refusing to convict.

I believe that we do see government tyranny today when people are charged with crimes for engaging in civil disobedience to protest government injustice. I believe that we see government unreasonableness when people are sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses like drug possession.

The Fully Informed Jury Association explains that it is the responsibility of jurors to exercise their conscience and their judgment beyond the bare facts. Jurors are to be judges, not only of the facts, but also of the law (Is the law a just law?), the sentence (Will the defendant, if found guilty, receive a reasonable sentence?) and any mitigating circumstances (Even if guilty according to the facts, are there mitigating circumstances that lessen or eliminate guilt?). A jury may find a defendant not guilty by virtue of the fact that the law has been found unjust, or the defendant undeserving of the mandated sentence, or the mitigating circumstances sufficient to lessen or eliminate the defendant's guilt.

This seems to me to be the correct understanding of the jurors' responsibility. It is certainly preferable to the narrow understanding promoted by the judge at the voir dire in which I participated. The judge was, in effect, asking us to put aside our consciences and to decide guilty or not guilty solely on the basis of bare facts, regardless of the law's rightness, the sentence's reasonableness, or any mitigating circumstances. I believe that I, as a juror, have the responsibility to refuse to convict in a case of a non-violent drug-possession with an unreasonable mandated prison sentence, in a case of civil disobedience to protest government injustice, in a pre-Civil War case of refusal to return an escaped slave to his or her southern "owner."

I believe that it is extremely important for jurors to use their consciences and their judgment far beyond the bare facts of the case. That a judge would not so instruct the jurors is, to me, highly disturbing.

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