In the past ten years, I have been selected for jury duty not once, not twice, but thrice.
My first time serving was in Baltimore City for an assault case, the second was here in Philly city court, and the third was also here but in the Eastern District Court. Each time was a massive inconvenience where I was paid very little and had to sit through tedious legal back-and-forths while my fellow citizens and I decided someone’s fate.
And honestly? I’d be happy to serve again. Well, maybe not happy. “Politely resigned” to perform my civic duty. To participate in our justice system is a duty bestowed on average citizens (who would rather be doing literally anything else) that you can’t help but take seriously and soberly.
I’m not sure if there’s any way to make jury duty more tolerable. But we, as citizens, can certainly alter our attitude and do what little we can to influence our very flawed system for the better.
What Is A Jury?
For anyone embarrassingly out of touch, jury trials and bench trials represent two distinct approaches within the legal system. In a jury trial, a diverse group of individuals evaluates evidence and determines the verdict. On the other hand, in a bench trial the judge will serve as the sole decision-maker.
Each method has its merits. Jury trials embrace community representation and emotional understanding. Meanwhile, bench trials emphasize legal precision and efficiency, allowing judges to render decisions free from emotional biases. Choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial can be a critical decision for defendants and their criminal defense lawyers.
Why would you force citizens irritated by their mandate to sit and judge you? Wouldn’t they hate you for pulling them in? Short answer, no. My fellow jurors and I may have been irritated by our forced presence, not once did we blame anyone in that courtroom. We blamed “the system” and bonded in our mutual distaste for our civic duty.
But, logistically speaking, why would a defendant choose to have a jury trial? When considering a jury trial, several factors come into play. There are multiple ways that a jury trial may be beneficial for defendants.
Empathy from the jury
When faced with a sympathetic defendant, a jury is more likely to engage emotionally and consider the individual’s background and circumstances. This empathetic connection can be a pivotal factor, as opposed to appearing before a judge who might maintain a more detached and professional demeanor.
For example, in federal court we had to decide how much an insurance company had to pay to cover plaintiff’s injuries. Seeing the woman attempt to raise her arm after tearing her rotator cuff elicited sympathy from us. Sure, we thought she was being a little dramatic, but we believed she really was in pain.
A jury’s capacity for empathy enables them to relate to the defendant’s human experiences, potentially influencing their perspective and decision-making throughout the trial proceedings. This emotional resonance underscores the significance of opting for a jury trial, providing a platform where the defendant’s personal narrative and mitigating factors can be more effectively communicated and, as a result, potentially sway the outcome in their favor.
In opting for a jury trial, a criminal defendant may also benefit from the collective nature of the decision-making process. Unlike a bench trial where a single judge determines the verdict, a jury consists of multiple individuals, each contributing to the final decision. This shared responsibility can lead to a more thorough examination of evidence and legal arguments, providing a safeguard against potential biases or errors that might arise with a single decision-maker.
In all three juries I served in, we took our responsibility seriously. It helps that the entire experience is very structured because that allowed us to stick with a schedule and carefully go over every detail. We all acknowledged that someone else’s fate was in our hands – if our roles were reversed, we would want the jury to go over everything as carefully as they could.
Protection against judicial bias
Additionally, a criminal defendant might prefer a jury trial to safeguard against any perceived judicial bias. While judges are trained to be impartial, the human element may still introduce the possibility of unconscious biases affecting judgment. By choosing a jury trial, the defendant places the fate of their case in the hands of a diverse group, potentially minimizing the impact of an individual judge’s predispositions.
Lastly, in cases where legal complexities are minimal, a jury trial can be preferred because it allows for a layperson’s perspective. Unlike judges who are legal experts, jurors bring a diverse range of life experiences and common-sense reasoning to the table. This can be particularly advantageous for defendants when presenting straightforward cases that rely on clear facts rather than intricate legal arguments, making the legal process more accessible to the average person.
Potential benefits of a bench trial
Still, there are situations where a jury trial may not be the best option. There are multiple reasons why a defendant may prefer a bench trial. If your peers find your behavior reprehensible, it can potentially cloud their judgment. One such bench trial you may be familiar with is the case of Michelle Carter, who was found by the judge to be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. She and her defense team gambled on a bench trial out of concern that a jury of her peers would be biased against her. Didn’t work out for her.
In my second jury, we had a criminal defendant who was being accused of something truly stomach-turning. While we found the subject matter disturbing, we ultimately felt that we could be fair. We still convicted the guy, but we definitely did our best to be as fair as we could.
Legal expertise and nuanced arguments
A criminal defendant may opt for a bench trial when the case involves intricate legal nuances that require a deep understanding of the law. In such instances, a judge’s legal expertise becomes a crucial asset. Unlike a jury, a judge is well-versed in legal intricacies, enabling a more accurate and nuanced evaluation of complex legal arguments. This expertise can be particularly advantageous in cases where the outcome hinges on the application of specific legal principles.
Controlled and unbiased evaluation
Choosing a bench trial provides the advantage of a more controlled and potentially unbiased evaluation of the evidence. With a judge as the sole decision-maker, the risk of emotional or subjective influences from a jury is minimized. This controlled environment ensures that the case is assessed based on legal merits rather than emotional reactions, offering a more predictable and consistent adjudication process.
It is important to remember that while a judge may take a more professional approach to a particular case, a jury may be more likely to relate the defendant on an emotional level. An attorney’s assistance can be crucial to the accused when weighing pros and cons to determine whether a jury trial or bench trial is preferred.
Eliminating misunderstandings in complex evidence
In cases involving complex scientific evidence, a bench trial may be preferable because it mitigates the risk of misunderstandings. Matters such as blood spatter science, eyewitness identifications, or DNA evidence often require a nuanced understanding. Judges, accustomed to regularly handling such technicalities, are less likely to misinterpret or be swayed by the potential misrepresentations common in popular culture. This mitigates the risk of incorrect judgments based on a misunderstanding of intricate scientific evidence.
Efficiency and expediency
Opting for a bench trial can contribute to a more efficient legal process. A judge, experienced in managing court proceedings, can streamline the trial, reducing the potential for delays or disruptions. This efficiency can be especially beneficial when time constraints are a factor, ensuring a timely resolution without the extended duration often associated with jury trials.
You too can be “happy” to serve on a jury
Nobody is actually happy to serve on a jury. Like I mentioned, it is a massive inconvenience for very little money. But I came away from each experience a little proud that I had done my part in our justice system. It was negligible, but we went in knowing we had to decide someone’s fate and we believe that we did so fairly. Whether it was acquitting a guy due to lack of evidence, convicting a very bad man, or making an insurance company pay for the coverage they guaranteed and tried to weasel out of, we did our part.
It’s because of those experiences that I have a little faith in our capacity to make a flawed system better. I’m not asking anyone to get excited about jury duty, but I am asking people to try and have a positive attitude about it. You never know how you can be someone’s hero.
My one unreasonable gripe with our jury duty system is that, at the Eastern District, they serve the worst deli turkey imaginable. You’d think with a federal budget they’d spring for some real turkey breast. That was the worst turkey sandwich I’ve ever had and will probably ever have. If we can make jury duty just a little better, I’d say spring for the real turkey.
Chris Blondell is a Philadelphia-based writer covering local issues, business, tech, or anything else that helps pay the mortgage.