“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, he was summarizing his view of the importance of our jury system. What was true a the birth our our nation is true today.
Engines didn’t exist then, but anchors did. And where an anchor is a fine analogy for something that prevents the drifting of a boat or the toppling of a structure, an engine keeps something moving, working, and useful. Anchors are usually simple one-piece structures that function by a factor of their unchanging and overwhelming mass. They are maintenance free. Neglect is not an issue. But an engine must be maintained and even upgraded, if necessary, to continue to meet the demands placed on it. A single faulty component can cause it to be unreliable, inefficient, or inoperative altogether. I believe this to be true of the jury system as well.
Jefferson’s quote also reflects the pressing issue of his day, the formation of a new government with a constitution that represented a radical departure from the oppressive British regime. Government at the time was to be feared, and while a healthy fear of government will always be, well, healthy, perhaps today Jefferson would agree with the appropriateness of adding society, the other side of that coin, as an entity that must be held to the principles of the constitution, in part by means of the jury system. That is the thrust of this book, the inspiration for which came to me at 10:00 a.m. on October 3, 1995, with the words “not guilty.”
It has been many years since O. J. Simpson walked free from a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, but that case still reminds us of our short attention spans. Why did we follow that trial so closely? For many, it was best reality show ever produced—pure entertainment for those whom treachery and violence thrill. For others, it was a chance to see if the justice system would serve as well for a wealthy celebrity as for the common man. For the former group, the verdict was a bonus feature, a surprise ending that only a screenwriter could have envisioned. For the latter, it was a shock to the system, the demolition of the fundamental principle of right and wrong. “Good will always triumph over evil.” Gone. “You reap what you sow.” Gone. “Justice is blind.” Gone.
In the first few weeks of the aftermath, we debated the deficiencies of the justice system over coffee:
- Why did the state make so many mistakes?
- Why couldn’t the judge control the courtroom?
- Are high-priced criminal defense attorneys really that much better than prosecutors?
- After all that evidence to consider, how could the jury have come to a verdict in only a few hours?
The media had its feeding frenzy. Lawyers, judges, and trial consultants like me were asked for our analysis. Then the dust settled on both our televisions and our passions.
The case later came back to life in the form of the civil trial. This time, the jury arrived at the opposite decision, salving some of the wounds that the criminal trial left and giving rise to a flurry of excuses about our American justice system. Of the many offered over coffee or by television pundits, I was bothered most by those that, in so many words, offered, “It’s the best system in the world. It works the vast majority of the time. Leave it alone.” Right … leave it alone. Then along came the Casey Anthony trial, and we learn what happens when we leave it alone. The hue and cry over a suspect system starts all over again.
Enter my engine analogy. You probably own a car. You probably depend on this car. For the sake of the analogy, let’s say the car works most of the time. Ask yourself if you would consider such a car broken. Or, if not broken, then it’s at least in need of repair. Don’t we expect more of our cars than that they work most of the time? Most won’t even tolerate an unreliable car. If we have any doubts about it getting us from point A to point B, it goes in for repairs. That’s how demanding we are of our cars, even though a broken car is, at most, an inconvenience.
Let’s take the analogy a step further. Suppose the car works most of the time. Invariably, however, on those occasions, it doesn’t occur when you’re driving at night, in the middle of nowhere, and in bad weather. In short, the car breaks down when you need it most. I say this car is definitely broken.
One might also offer the same observation of our electoral system and our voting rights. Best in the world? Leave it alone? That suggests we needn’t have addressed any of the problems with the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Regardless of whom you favored in that election, I believe we can agree the events in Florida revealed flaws in the system that caught the attention of the world and led to changes.
Was the O. J. Simpson case the ultimate test of the jury system? I don’t know. Were those murders any more significant than the murders you can read about every day? Definitely not, but the case was an important test, if for no other reason than the fact that everyone was watching. The system needed to work more so than at any time in recent memory.
The legal industry is just that—an industry. As with any industry, there’s a good deal of inertia. As this industry is in large part a public one, inertia is an even greater factor. So, if there’s going to be any action, the general public needs to be in on it, if not driving it. That’s why I wrote this book with the general public in mind.
As indicated at the outset, I started this work shortly after the Simpson criminal trial, but because of lack of time, it languished in the to-do file for years. During those years, additional experiences stemming from my trial consulting work have contributed to it as well as articles about trials and juries.
Because I rely a good deal on my experiences for the positions I take in this book, I’ll digress for a moment to offer a brief summary of my work in this field. I began a career in trial consulting in 1989 with the firm Litigation Sciences, Inc. At the time, it was by far the largest trial consulting firm in the country. Four years later, I left to form my own practice, Tunno & Associates Trial Consulting. Briefly, my trial consulting practice includes conducting jury research (mock trials), consulting on case strategy, writing opening statements and closing arguments, assisting on the writing of briefs and coaching lawyers on their delivery, as well as teaching witnesses the necessary skills for their court appearances and creating demonstrative exhibits.
A detailed review of my practice is available on the trial consulting side of this site (Select “Front Page,” then enter the trial consulting side of the site), but I’ll spend a moment or two on jury research projects (mock trials). These are projects that test a case in front of surrogate jurors who’ve been recruited to hear a summary version of a case and decide what would be their verdict if they were sitting as jurors in the real trial. These projects are a mainstay of the trial consulting business. They give our clients an accurate read on the strengths and weakness of their case. They are commonplace in high-profile cases and where a lot of money is at stake. You may have even participated in one.
Lawyer clients want to know, for example:
- Am I making my points effectively?
- Do the jurors hate the client?
- Is there a piece of evidence the jurors view as more important than I do?
They also want to know what profiles of jurors would be predisposed against them in the real trial, just to name a few factors.
During the jury selection phase of the trial, we typically sit at the table with the lawyers with a notepad, writing brief notes on each juror as he or she answers questions from the judge and attorneys. We give the juror a rating number so the attorney will know who we think are the best and worst jurors for our side. Then we play the game of second-guessing the other side while we use our available strikes to eliminate the jurors we don’t like.
Trial consultants come from various walks of life, but the two most common are social science researchers and those in the communications field. My expertise was in communications, and I added the social science research skills while I was in the business. For others, it might be the other way around.
To the extent the jury system was a key factor in the outcome of the Simpson criminal case, a greater tragedy is the brevity of our collective attention span. If the result of the Simpson civil trial represents some measure of correction of a previous injustice, in no way was it a vindication of the jury system itself. The results of a few trials will not correct what ails the system. If your mechanic told you last year that your transmission was about to fail and now he says you need new brakes, you still have a transmission problem. And cases like Simpson and Anthony are the ones we talk about because the media covers them so extensively. For every one of those high-profile cases, there are thousands of others. Some are also small in terms of the number of people directly affected, but others affect a great many people, even huge segments of the population. There are cases few people even know about. From an insider’s point of view, the system doesn’t work any better in those cases than it does in the famous ones.
Ailments in our American jury system represent future problems, future injustices waiting to happen. The cure is not waiting and watching. The cure is not forgetfulness. The cure won’t happen by looking for signs of health. If it’s going to happen, it will come by our focusing on the system’s weaknesses and attacking its problems.