The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by an impartial jury. But in this above new world of Court TV, professional jury consultants, complex technical evidence and racial tension, the jury system may not be up to the job.
The murder trial of O.J. Simpson has gripped the country like no other in recent history. Broadcast live over cable's Court TV and recapped nightly on the evening news, it has been more popular than most made-for-TV movies - and the ratings prove it.
But as the trial nears its midpoint, a harsh and nagging question remains: Will the Simpson jury be able to deliver a fair verdict? Or have the months of testimony, the crowds of legal consultants, the confusing technical evidence and the pressure to reach a popular verdict so overwhelmed the jury that delivering justice may just be too much to ask?
"I think there will be skepticism and cynicism about this verdict no matter what happens," says Stephen Adler, a legal editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of The Jury: Trial and Error in the American Courtroom, one of several new books on the decline of the jury system. "There's a feeling that the system has gotten away from us, that it doesn't belong to the people any more - that lawyers are manipulative, jury consultants manipulate the process and that justice may not be the ultimate result."
The Simpson trial is only the latest in a series of high-profile cases that have contributed to the growing disillusionment. In the widely watched trials of Erik and Lyle Menendez, Lorena Bobbitt and the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, for example, no one disputed that the defendants actually committed the crimes of which they were accused - yet the juries found none of them guilty.
And the fault for these apparent miscarriages of justice, say many, lies with the jury system itself. "The jury as an institution is an anachronism," says Kate Stith, a criminal-law professor at the Yale Law School and former federal prosecutor in New York. "It's hard to believe that in the 20th century we'd come up with this system."
In fact, the right to a jury of one's peers dates back to 1791, when the Sixth Amendment was ratified. Jurors then were expected to be active participants in a trial, and since they were drawn from the local community, they often knew the defendant, the witnesses and the events surrounding the crime itself. But in the 19th century, jurors began to be seen as "blank slates," and the rules changed.
As modern technology and psychology transform the trial process, jurors today are forced to play by outdated rules. They can't ask questions in court, for example, and often they're barred from taking notes. They aren't allowed to discuss the case as it unfolds. They're selected specifically for their ignorance about the defendant and the crime itself and aren't allowed to gather any information on their own. They are kept from seeing critical evidence. As cases become longer, more complex and involve more technical evidence, jurors are finding they can't keep up. They have remained, in short, abacus users in the age of the computer.
During the last three decades, four seismic events have shaken the jury system to its core: the rise of media interest and courtroom cameras; the advent of racially diverse juries; the use of social psychology in the courtroom; and the increasing complexity of trials. These phenomena have reshaped the trial process, and the system has not made corresponding adjustments to help jurors cope. As a result, the fate of Simpson may have less to do with the evidence than with factors unrelated to his guilt or innocence.
Few, if any, argue that the jury system should be abandoned - and certainly not on the basis of celebrated trials such as Simpson's. Yet, the flaws of that case can be seen in other courtrooms across the country every day. True, few trials take place on prime-time television. But in the age of Court TV, more and more unknowns are candidates for national attention. …