A Frightening Power

I had jury duty yesterday.

Half of you probably just groaned and rolled your eyes. “Did you get out of it?” The answer is that I was, in fact, not called into a courtroom — I was dismissed, along with everyone else who showed up, at around 3:00pm. But I don’t look at that as escaping some onerous duty — I was actually interested in the potential proceedings.

It’s a powerful thing, to be on a jury. You are the person who, on behalf of your entire society, is making a determination of guilt. No doubt there are cases that are a “slam dunk” — either the defendant is so clearly guilty, or the prosecution has so clearly not proved its case, that the process is little more than going through the motions. But what of the others? What about when the evidence is not so cut-and-dried? What about when the physical evidence suggests condemnation, but the accused’s emotional terrified pleas of innocence struggle to stay your hand? What about when the evidence is not airtight, but the terrible nature of the crime cries out for someone to pay?

That choice is suddenly not some sterile story in a newspaper to be absorbed and accepted — you are it. It is probably the most literal expression of the term “government of the people”. When you sit in that booth, you are the government, and you are making a determination that will shape a fellow citizen’s life — or perhaps end it.

It is power. It is a frightening power; in a way it’s not unlike pointing a gun at someone. In one case you wield the power of violence; in the other the power of law. Ultimately they’re the same thing. Do you pull the trigger?

It is lust for this kind of power that drives some people to become criminals (or politicians) in the first place — they crave the ability to choose someone else’s life and death. It is fear of this kind of power that drives others to fear gun rights — for how can you allow someone else to have such power?

It’s for these reasons that trial by jury is one of the most powerfully just aspects of American society — the guaranteed right to a jury of your peers. You life doesn’t hang on the decision of a government bureaucrat, but on the conscience of your neighbor.

People in our modern society have generally become far removed from the grim realities of life and death. It is why so many people could not conceive of having a gun — they are happier to let others take care of such things for them. Similarly, the idea of making such a decision about someone else’s life — of being the final arbiter of innocence or guilt — weighs heavily on the mind of most people. Thus the strength of the system is multiplied by the fact that people are required, as I was yesterday, to serve in this capacity; a system made up only of people who want to be jurors would most likely become corrupt as quickly as politics do. Normal people thrust into a position of deciding a stranger’s fate tend to tread softly and give serious consideration to what they are doing. The system is strong because it is frightening.

The system is not perfect — mistakes are made, and people are not perfectly logical — but much like the rest of our country, it is probably the best system of justice yet devised by man.

Comments are invited and encouraged

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