Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jury System is Irrelevant to Real Justice

By Saeed Qureshi
Casey Anthony in the murder charge of her young daughter Caylee Marie was acquitted by the jury in July 2011. Police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michel Brown an 18 year old black man in Ferguson Missouri last August got a no guilty verdict from the jury.  The police officer Pantaleo causing death by choke holding of  a  black male Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, in the Tompkinsville of Staten Island New York  was set free by a panel of jury. Close on the heels on November 22 again a white police officer, shot and killed a 12 year old black boy,Tamir Rice in Cleveland Ohio.                                          

In these and several similar cases, the police officer used unnecessary and excessive force and killed the suspects in full public view. These recent acquittals by the jury bring into sharp focus how fragile and irrelevant the jury system in the USA has turned out to be. The latest acquittals of police offers Darren Wilson and Pantaleo bear the impression of a racial tinge making one ponder as to how such blatant acts in full public view could be judged in favor of these two police officers.

The constitution of the United States of America deserves the highest tribute as a beacon of guidance and a magnificent model for all the democracies in the world. It would continue to serve as an invaluable embodiment of all such hallmarks that constitute civil societies. However, the American justice system is yet to reach a stage for veritable dispensation of justice to both victims and the perpetrators.

The Sixth Amendment stipulates that, “ In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of the counsel for his defense.”

An observation that I read in the New York Times so succinctly illustrates the way the American Justice is aborted. It says, “The judge’s whim is all that mattered in that courtroom. The law was basically irrelevant." (Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, on two Pennsylvania judges who sent thousands of juveniles to detention centers for $2.6 million in kickbacks).

If any branch of the civil society is enormously independent and truly powerful in the United States, it is indeed the judiciary. Now I would not endorse the kickbacks blemish but certainly there are dark shadows that come in the way of handing out absolutely unalloyed and sparkling justice.

There is a laudable culture and tradition of strict accountability running into the body politic of the United States. Yet rarely a member of judiciary is held accountable for the miscarriage of justice willfully or otherwise. The Judges in the courts are like sovereigns and their every movement of hands and eyebrows, wrinkles of the face, the remarks uttered by way of rebuke or appreciation have to be swallowed by those attending the courts. The federal judges occasionally look like Hercules unchained.

Now the jury system is a legacy of the past when community involvement was deemed necessary to arrive at a decision. The jury consists of the people invited from various walks of life who would not have enough inkling or even rudimentary knowledge of the legal intricacies of a civil or criminal case. The jury is drawn from students, businessmen, employees or individuals from other walks of life. By law these people have to act as jury members. 

For a variety of compulsions some of them seem to be in a hurry to leave by joining others in a yes or no vote without going into the merit of the case. Some remain detached from the proceedings for not being well versed with the background of the case and accept the opinion of others.
The Jury members consult among themselves in a closed room and are later briefed for a limited time by both the prosecution and defense attorneys to formulate a unanimous verdict on which depends the future of the accused person.

Notwithstanding the debate, the arguments, the evidence, the merits of the cases, the jury members cannot comprehend the essence of the case in a few hours or a day. They may declare the person guilty despite being innocent, or innocent despite being guilty. The combined Yes or No vote renders the years of debate and discussions by the contending counsels as futile and wastage of time. In comparison to the prolonged court indulgence and counsels’ hard work, the jury verdict arrived at in a short time makes the whole difference.
Now race or ethnic background might be a very potent factor influencing the verdict of a case either by the judge or the jury. The immigrant communities usually involved in violation of traffic rules, overstaying, small felonies like a dispute between the wife and husband or a theft that can be summarily disposed off, are trapped in adjudication between the prosecution and the defense attorneys for years together.

A predominately black or white jury might be swayed by the racial or ethnic considerations thus tainting the legal process that should be absolutely fair because upon that depends the life and honor of a human being or the member of society. The prosecution and defense counsels pull every trick in their kitty to influence the verdict of the jury in their favor. Even if the jury is divided, a consensus is necessary to declare someone guilty or not guilty. This is all a matter of persuasion by the counsels, good luck or bad luck of the accused as to what kind of opinion he gets from the jury.

The jury system is indeed like a spanner in the smooth sailing of the justice system because it is superimposed and nullifies all the work done by the attorneys for a long time, on both the sides. It also makes the judge irrelevant because he is simply a dumb listener as at the end, it is jury’s one word verdict that would be final.
Prior to the jury verdict, most of the case remains stuck up in the court for final decision. The court proceedings tend to be time consuming and costly that the poor litigant can seldom afford. The overriding spirit and general attitude of the adjudicating authorities is punitive and not forgiving even in minor cases where a simple warning would be enough.

In a surfeit of cases a plea bargain is the ultimate outcome. It means, “don’t care or press for the merit of the case, get rid of the agony and accept less punishment, in order to avoid more excruciating hassle and waste of time and money”. If in many cases a plea bargain is the final outcome thanks to the quid pro quo between the contesting lawyers. 

The question is that if the final outcome is the plea bargain then why a case is kept in limbo for years. In case of choosing the option of fine to avoid the sentence, another torturous process of rehabilitation starts, leaving a person in a mentally or physically mauled state.

The professional ethics among the attorneys, lawyers and interpreters of law, occasionally, seems to fall short of the required benchmarks and norms. As one can look from a distance, there would be an effort by the defense lawyers to prolong the cases as long as they can because thus they keep the inflow of the fees and other charges intact. These are the aberrations of the justice system that do not reflect any dereliction on the part of the law makers but are at play during its practical implementation.

But one exceptionally distinctive feature of this system is the right to appeal to the upper courts that give an option and a way-out for the aggrieved persons to keep exploring and seeking the justice till the final appeal is rejected or accepted. But appealing itself is a costly undertaking and might entail heavy bills and more wastage of time of the appellants.

Now how to expunge such aberrations or lacunae? As a lay man I would recommend doing away with the jury system. I plead this because with raw knowledge in legal matters, with diverse racial and ethnic proclivities and with very little time to understand the intricacies of the case, the jury may not come up with the right decision.

This custom can be replaced with a panel of judges who as legal experts would be in a strong position to hand out a wholesome and objective decision in much shorter time. If there is more than one judge, the whims and predilection of one single judge can be effectively checked.

It should also be worthwhile if in every criminal case, the DNA evidence is made obligatory because that is the incontrovertible way to determine one’s involvement or otherwise in the crime that one is accused of committing. Now the DNA, a unique and amazing innovation of the modern age has proven that many convicts of such heinous crime as rape and murder, who were put to death, were actually innocents. 

Unambiguously, it goes to establish that there have been some very serious flaws in the U. S. justice system. 
The judges come to the bar through elections and by votes of the community. This system speaks for the grassroots democratic culture and is praiseworthy. But the qualifications of the judges and legal arbiters some time are not up to the mark to entitle them to hold these immensely crucial and delicate public offices and also to perform in a highly professional manner.

In my view, the election of the judges should be replaced by a panel of experts who should thoroughly scrutinize the professional credentials of the candidates and recommend the most qualified or eligible among them. This is how a fully competent person can be chosen who would not take sides in favor of certain community members that were instrumental in his election victory.

Or else in case of judges being appointed through voting process, a pre-screening exercise should be undertaken to approve their suitability to contest for the post of a judge. This would ensure his professional competence to rightly interpret law and dispense justice.

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