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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Legislating from the Jury Box

If there’s a more serious job a common person can do that sitting on a jury, I can’t think of it. You quite literally hold a person’s life in your hands. Not only are you judging the person on trial, but also the victim, their families, and everyone who knows them.

This was brought home to be a few years ago when my brother was arrested for domestic violence. Despite testimony that showed his accuser too drunk to know who was in the room with her and further testimony that put my brother in the next county at the time of the attack, he came very close to being convicted and spending a significant amount of time in prison. As it was he spent several months locked in a county jail awaiting trial.

I’m thankful that at least some of the jurors put aside their feelings and judged the case according to the facts. The result was a hung jury – which is only slightly better than a guilty verdict. The district attorney, who had actually paid his attacker to come to court, was set to re-try the case. My brother did what too many poor men are forced to do when they can’t come up with the ten thousand dollars necessary to hire an attorney – he let the public defender cut a plea bargain for him.

Despite all of this, my brother is fortunate. He will soon be off of probation and can go about his life as a free man – albeit one with a hell of a bad memory never far from the front of his mind. Some men are not so lucky. The rhetoric used to describe anyone who has been accused of a crime makes sure that there is a permanent stigma attached to them regardless of what the jury says. Ten thousand dollars is a high price to pay for a shot at clearing your name.

The problem is that some people simply insist on bringing other experiences and knowledge into the jurors’ deliberation room. That is a violation of the entire principal of trial by jury and justice before the law. Such a problem was taken up by the Colorado Supreme Court recently when it overturned the death penalty handed down in the case of Robert Harlan. It seems that some of the jurors had written Bible verses down and snuck them into the deliberation room to influence the rest of the jury to come back with the penalty they preferred.

It worked. Reading “an eye for an eye” endlessly and locking up the jury until they all agreed ensured that Robert Harlan was sentenced to death. Fortunately, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that introducing non-legal matter into the deliberations invalidated the verdict. Harlan will now spend his life in prison rather than be put to death because a minority believed they knew better than the law what to do with his case.

I do support the death penalty – in theory. However, if it is to be used, it should never be because a juror was browbeaten into submission. I also support using Christian principals for helping you in all decisions you face. However, I do not support using only part of the Bible to justify an action. The Bible must be taken hermeneutically – which is a big way of saying that every part of it must be in perfect agreement with every other part. Sneaking in a few verses that back up your pre-determined verdict is not the way a Christian should behave.

I’ll even go further and say that those jurors who went around the legal system should be charged with abuse of power. It would be one thing if they had sent a note to the judge and asked if they could use the Bible. They didn’t because they knew they’d be turned down. Instead, they betrayed their public trust and put themselves above the rule of law. I’m sure they are now screaming to high Heaven about “judges legislating from the bench”.

Of course, this isn’t what happened. The judges merely prevented them from subverting democracy by legislating from the jury room. For too many people today, simply enforcing the law fairly is now considered to be an infringement of their rights. This sprouts from the irresponsible ideology of selfishness known as Objectivism that holds any action that restrains an individual as being wrong. It is a godless theory and one that is responsible for destroying the moral fabric of the country.

At least for now, we can find some comfort in judges that believe in equality and the rule of law. God help us if we lose them, too.

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