Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jury Rights and Wrongs

I've come across an interesting bit of material in my studies about juries that I thought I would share. Basically it concerns the benefits and disadvantages of jury trials. Many of these are common fare - juries are a poor choice to sit in judgment of others because they are not experts neither in the law or in the specifics of the case, they cost more than a judge would, they are expensive and time consuming. On the other hand many believe that juries are an essential, participatory and democratic element to the justice system. Studies have constantly shown that people believe that due to their random selection (and in America their supposedly unbiased nature) they are eminently fair. Satisfaction with the jury system is extremely high. However there seems to be one argument put forward against the jury that has a good bit of traction in my mind - the notion that juries are arbitrary. Arbitrary in the sense that their judgment is limited to one or two words (i.e. "guilty" or "not guilty") without the need to say what drove them to their decision. No justification of their decision is required. While I understand why this might be the case (the believe that by giving specific justification for their decision such as "we did not believe the witness for the defense" may open them up to a legal challenge and thus a never ending court procedure) it does sit poorly when looking for an open and transparent process.

This line of criticism was taken up recently by the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Taxquet v Belgium. In this case Mr. Taxquet appealed against his conviction in a Belgium court based upon the fact that he did not know what were the reasons which drove the jury to respond in the affirmative to four questions which were the basis for his conviction. He complained that this lack of transparency violated his right to a fair trial as protected under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR agreed with him. It is important to note however that the ECHR in no way condemned jury trials by their nature - but rather that in relation to this case, the verdict lacked the transparency required for the ECHR to deem it fair. It remains to be seen how this may play out give that the case was only decided recently. However one could imagine that by providing a rationale the system would allow more light to fall into the darkness of the jury's deliberations.

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