Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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A Lesson in Law

Res Publica

August 2012

by Mariah Dunsing

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that the greatness of America has some to do with its penchant for trials by jury. He asserted that in serving to uphold the laws which we wrote, Americans connected to and learned of their government in a way that greatly affected their habits and practical experiences. When I held my jury summons in my hands, those were my first thoughts.

The first day at the courthouse I was curious, and as we slowly went through the administrative details, I wondered if I would have a real chance to participate in the laws and government of my home county. I left the courthouse that day with a letter and number identifying me as one of a pool of jurors who may or may not be called to decide a case over the course of the next two weeks. In the midst of a busy summer, I was half hoping my duty would end there, in a courtroom empty of witnesses, defendants, and lawyers. But, it didn’t.

The case we were asked to decide upon was one of a sensitive nature. A nine-month-old child had his leg broken. At the time of the injury, there were only two people present in the room: the child and the defendant – a young man of only 21. The young man was charged with child endangering and reckless endangerment: child abuse.

As the trial progressed, the jury heard from many witnesses – the parents of the child, the defendant, the doctors who treated the child, and a forensic investigator – and were given complete and clear instructions by the judge as to how the case must be decided according to the law. In being given our instruction, as much information as possible, and an empty room, we 12 jurors set about interacting with the law.

We argued over which testimony should be considered and which shouldn’t be. We argued over motives and over facts, and we puzzled over the law that was to be our guide. In doing all of this, we learned about the law – it served as our guide and we were its faithful defenders. But, in interacting with the law, we didn’t learn to love it; instead, we groaned under its limitations.

All of the information that we received was filtered through the eyes of another man, each with his own motives and thoughts to which we were equally blind. As members of the jury we could choose to ignore any evidence heard in court that we believed to be fallacious or incredible, but this task, meant to increase our ability to judge the case rightly, only made our task harder.

There were only two people in the room when the crime occurred, we heard from one of them, but the defendant had lied a lot in the past – we saw video recordings of his lies – so, we didn’t know if we could trust his word now or then. The child who had been injured was too young to speak when it happened, and too young to have a memory of the incident now.

We didn’t know if we could trust the mother – maybe she had motives for bringing the charge that we couldn’t see – and, we didn’t know the character of the doctor who testified or how involved he was in treating the child who had been harmed.

Really, we didn’t know much of anything. For two days we sat in a courtroom and listened as person after person answered the questions asked by the two lawyers. We didn’t know who was lying, who was telling the truth, and, consequently, what we should believe. We were left with nothing more than our reason, our instincts, and the law, yet, somehow, those were supposed to be enough.

In the end, I and 11 of my fellows did what the law asked of us – we grappled with the information that we were given, incomplete and tainted though it might have been, and we reached the best decision we knew how: we found him guilty.

Being jury foreperson, it was my responsibility to stand in court and deliver our decision to the judge. As I did my duty, I was struck by the gravity of my actions: I was responsible for delivering the news that would send this man to prison. Sure, we had carefully considered the evidence and we had argued amongst ourselves for days, but what if we were wrong?

Tocqueville wrote that trial by juries help to ensure American liberty, not because jurors never make mistakes or because it’s the most efficient way to conduct a trial, but because in participating in a trial, in being asked to uphold the law, you don’t just know that the law exists anymore. You have intimate knowledge of the law and you, that 20-year-old college student, are part of it.

Mariah Dunsing is a senior from Niles, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.

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