Trial by Fury
Jury trials aren't always satisfying, but they're better than angry mobs.
The right to trial by jury is so fundamental to American democracy that it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson said the jury trial was "the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." The Declaration of Independence excoriates the king for "for depriving us in many cases, of the beneﬁts of trial by jury" precisely because American colonists were furious that the British tried to deny them just that right.
All that was hundreds of years ago, of course. Nowadays it has become something of an American tradition to call into question one of the most American of institutions.
When Casey Anthony was acquitted last week in the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, the nation collectively went nuts. Anyone who had watched the trial for even a moment—or who had followed the noise of the trial coverage for weeks on end—was certain that Anthony was guilty. The pundits who opined for hours, and from vast distances, about the case on cable news were similarly certain. So when a jury determined that it simply didn't have enough proof to find Anthony guilty of first-degree murder, most Americans decided that those jurors were blind morons. The alternative—that these jurors saw something the rest of us may have missed—was unthinkable.
The Casey Anthony jurors felt that the prosecution left too many open questions and failed to prove guilt under the extremely high standard required by law. They wanted a motive and a cause of death. America wanted revenge. The jurors wanted proof of Casey Anthony's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. America wanted justice for Caylee. Underlying the difference between these two goals is the fundamental premise of the American system of justice: avenging innocent victims matters less than protecting innocent defendants.
As Alan Dershowitz explained last week: "A criminal trial is never about seeking justice for the victim. If it were, there could be only one verdict: guilty. That's because only one person is on trial in a criminal case, and if that one person is acquitted, then by definition there can be no justice for the victim in that trial." If all that sounds cold, lawyerly, and inhuman, that's because the justice system is designed to be all those things. Juries are not driven solely by the bottomless outrage of Nancy Grace. That's what makes them juries. There is nothing much to like about the slick reality show that was the Anthony trial. But that the jury understood the difference between what their guts told them and what the law demanded of them may be called its sole success.
So when Mitch McConnell scoffed Sunday that the real lesson of the Casey Anthony verdict is that we need to try all suspected terrorists in military tribunals since we now know "how difficult it is to get a conviction in a U.S. court," he got it precisely wrong. The lesson here isn't that we need rigged trials and vengeful jurors to obtain convictions. It's that convictions require good evidence, ably presented. Doing away with due process, which allows the authorities to lock up anyone who resists the crown or simply looks like a "terrorist," is precisely what the framers were fighting against. If obtaining convictions without sufficient objective evidence of guilt is really the aim of the justice system, juries will often get in the way. By McConnell's logic, we should have tried Casey Anthony at Guantanamo Bay, too.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Jamie Leigh Jones by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.