Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Synopsis

James Donovan takes a comprehensive approach to the history of the jury in modern France by investigating the legal, political, sociocultural, and intellectual aspects of jury trial from the Revolution through the twentieth century. He demonstrates that these juries, through their decisions, helped shape reform of the nation's criminal justice system.&9;
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From their introduction in 1791 as an expression of the sovereignty of the people through the early 1900s, argues Donovan, juries often acted against the wishes of the political and judicial authorities, despite repeated governmental attempts to manipulate their composition. High acquittal rates for both political and nonpolitical crimes were in part due to juror resistance to the harsh and rigid punishments imposed by the Napoleonic Penal Code, Donovan explains.
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Excerpt

The institution of trial by jury is intimately connected with democracy. It is based on the assumption that ordinary citizens are capable of administering justice, just as they are capable of choosing their political leaders. Juries, by virtue of their relative independence, have also often been important protectors of the people’s liberties. in France, Britain, and the United States, they have frequently acquitted persons accused of political, press, or speech offenses, to the chagrin of the authorities.

“Jury nullification”—being defined as the exercise of jury discretion in favor of a defendant whom the panel nevertheless believes committed the act for which he or she has been charged —has also been at times applied to the far larger numbers of persons tried for nonpolitical (or “routine”) felonies. This does not mean that juries necessarily disregard evidence. But in other cases, juries may react against the strict letter of the law. in political cases, jury nullification usually grows out of political motives (resistance to tyranny, defense of a free press, opposition to the regime in power, and the like). in the case of routine felonies, it usually arises from the jury’s belief that the penalties prescribed by law for certain offenses are too severe or from the panel’s sympathy with some types of offenders or with offenders in particular circumstances. Jury decisions in routine felony cases also embody changing moral and social norms.

The aim of this book is to combine a broad political-institutional approach to the subject of jury behavior with an “internalist” legal approach that focuses on the technicalities of jury trial. One is a necessary corrective to the other. Historians who have focused on the broad political-institutional aspects have often had a strong bias in favor of class-based explanations of jury behavior. For example, those who have studied jury trial in nineteenthcentury France have frequently claimed that conviction rates for property crimes were much higher than for violent crimes because nearly all jurors were bourgeois and were therefore especially tough on those criminals who threatened property. These historians cite as evidence overall judicial statistics on conviction rates for property crimes and violent crimes and data on the occupations of jurors. But a more careful look at the judicial statistics . . .

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