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Sense of Justice

Why, we jurors wondered, did the rules allow us to have so much information while leaving such bewildering gaps?

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I have to tell you, it's tough.

If real life were like "CSI" and "Law and Order," there would be fewer trials. If the defendant's body fluids are all over the crime scene, where's the doubt? If immutable testimony puts the accused on the scene with a bloody knife in his hand, what's the issue? When the hard facts are a chiaroscuro in black and white, you don't need a jury. Those cases often end in plea bargains.

No, if my experience is any indication, it's a lot more complicated. I served twice during my month in the Richmond jury pool. The forensic scientist who testified in the first case, which was as grim a murder trial as you'll ever see on TV, was neither blond nor overtly attractive, and she didn't have any hair or fiber evidence to help us. In the second, a civil case, it was one man's word against another's, and both sides admitted that there was no way for us to really know who was telling the truth.

The rules of civil and criminal procedure are a help and a hindrance. Jury trials are often spectacles of choreography with opposing counsel bobbing and weaving in a ritual as complex as Kabuki theater. Why, we jurors wondered, did the rules allow us to have so much information while leaving such bewildering gaps?

Sitting in the jury box is often confounding. But jurors are not supposed to leave their common sense at the jury-room door. Sometimes plain-vanilla judgment and a sense of fair play are all they have to go on — and all they need.

When I covered state and federal courts in Richmond for a few years earlier in my career, I was aware that, as a reporter, I saw a lot more than jurors saw. Lawyers argue before the judge about what evidence is allowable. Reporters see those arguments. Juries don't. In Virginia, a defendant's record might be all over the newspapers before a trail begins, but the jury isn't told about it until after a guilty verdict and just before it decides on a sentence.

"Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law," wrote 20th-century American novelist William Gaddis.

One of the cases we had to decide focused on two particularly shocking murders. Our decision hinged on a damning series of records that took up hours of the prosecution's case and left little wiggle room for the defendant. But for some reason still not clear to me, the jury had to connect the final dots on its own. The correlation between Fact A and Fact B was clear to us once we retired to the jury room and examined the documents for ourselves. We may have been consumed with curiosity about what had been kept from us and why, but we found the crucial connection on our own. We used our common sense and, without overmuch dithering, decided the defendant was guilty.

The civil case involved an automobile accident. Two cars crashed at an intersection. Both drivers claimed their light was green. There were no witnesses. It came down to who was telling the truth, and both sides were equally credible. The verdict, as might be expected, turned out to be a compromise. We relied on our common sense and awarded the claimant his minimum medical expenses but nothing more.

The lasting impression I have of my two experiences as a juror was of the essential decency, intelligence, mutual respect and serious intent of my fellow jurors. Despite neither case being clear-cut, both juries tried their damnedest, and they didn't leave their common sense behind.

Did we mete out justice?

I'll never know for certain. But we were as fair as we knew how to be — given what the system handed us to work with.

Today's sense of justice can be traced back to 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede. It is the basis of what is widely considered to be right and fair, not just in England and here, but in every country where wise men think about justice. Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote to three of his students: "Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice."

Is that what we recognized?

I think it was. (And some of us had a few sleepless nights to prove it wasn't a slam-dunk.)

My experience as a juror in Richmond left me convinced that justice is what diligent juries always seek, and fairness is often the best they can attain.

But their greatest asset in their quest is not forensics and incontrovertible evidence. Rather, it is an abundance of common sense. S



Don Dale is a Richmond-based writer.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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