While preparing for a recent jury trial involving a personal injury claim one of the expert witnesses, a doctor, mentioned that my job wasn’t too tough. According to him, all I had to do was convince a bunch of people too stupid to get out of jury service that my client deserves to recover. An interesting position given that logic would dictate my opponent could use the same tactic to cancel out my efforts. Also an interesting comment from someone who has testified as a paid expert on more than one occasion. He must have appeared in front of his fair share of juries. I wonder if he ever asked the lawyers just what type of people were serving on those juries. I doubt it. If he had, he would have learned they were from all walks of life; blue collar, white collar, government workers, small business people, self employed, retirees and even an occasional college student. Baristas, engineers, other lawyers and even some doctors have sat on juries I’ve seen. A recent governor of California even served on a jury. So maybe he like so many other Americans has bought into the decades long public relations campaign the national Chamber of Commerce and corporate America has paid millions of dollars to promote. A campaign to convince the public the court system is broken and out of control. A campaign designed to help them gain public support to pass tort reform laws. Laws that generally do nothing but throw up obstacles for consumers seeking help when injured or wronged. Roadblocks that make it harder to sue if their kids are poisoned by tainted milk, the product they buy falls apart or their retirement funds are lost because of some corporate scandal. A campaign that tries to convince the public the people who serve on juries are too stupid and just can’t be trusted. As this is the week we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, it made me think of his experience with juries. In February of 1960, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the civil rights leader on charges of tax evasion. He was accused of allegedly falsifying his Alabama income tax returns. He was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury law. It seemed like an easy victory for a government bent on getting rid of the civil rights leader. In his autobiography, Dr. King describes the trial as follows:
“This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York.”
Something quite unexpected occurred. On May 28, 1960, after just a few hours of deliberation, that all white jury in Montgomery Alabama came back with an acquittal. Dr. King said this about his trial:
“I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.”
The people who serve on juries in America deserve respect and gratitude for their public service, not disdain and ridicule. The next time an acquaintance tells you about an experience on jury duty, thank them. They make our system of justice work.