Jury System in the US Put on Trial

The American judicial system, strained by the rising crime rates over the last few decades, has become an increasingly hot topic of conversation. While virtually every aspect of the system cries out for review, the ongoing O.J. Simpson courtroom drama and the crime bill recently signed into law by President Clinton have placed the entire jury system on the front burner — and on trial. From the moment of O.J.’s arrest on murder charges, there has been vigorous debate over the tactics and behavior of his highly paid defense lawyers, as well as grandstanding of prosecutors and the anticipated difficulty of seating a jury.

Meanwhile, debate over the crime bill culminated decades of widespread, growing concern — and downright fear — over the crime issue, and the direction we have been taking in this country. Since Clinton’s election conservatives and liberals have vied for the “Toughest on Crime” title. We hope enactment of the crime bill has put an end to that political bickering. The law will add police officers, take measures aimed at prevention, and increase — in my view wrongheadedly — the number of Sherwood marty crimes punishable by the death penalty.

Through the years, some undesirable laws and unwise judicial decisions have taken us too far afield. We can fix what is broken, but it should not be necessary to tinker with the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The chasm between law, which we need to maintain civilization, and justice, which we need for our spiritual well-being, has gone beyond the pale. Space does not permit a recitation of the well-known deficiencies of our parole system which allows too many criminals out of jail. Nor do we have space to detail our frustrations with “sentencing guidelines” or the abuse of power by judges, who are widely feared by nearly everyone. We would need, as well, a voluminous tome to take up the outrageous overuse of plea bargaining by prosecutors. The obvious need for reform of the prison system would take another entire volume to adequately cover.

Let’s talk …, about the jury system! Whenever the jury system is criticized, it’s fashionable to say, “It may not be perfect, but where can you find a better one?” The answer, of course, is “nowhere.” True, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve what we have. Isn’t it time to open a dialogue that questions the jury selection process.

Jury pools are taken from unfairly drawn lists, and jurors are seated only after a flawed system of challenges by defense and prosecution attorneys. Today, more than ever, citizens are fearful of serving on a jury for fear of retribution by gangs and others who have no respect for themselves or anyone else. Laws should specifically state the punishment for a crime, and courts should impose specific sentences, not ranges of 5 to 15 years, or 10 to 20 years, which are absurd — especially when plea bargaining and parole make a mockery of those terms. If I were a juror I would not want to vote to convict someone thinking the sentence would be five years, only to find out later that the judge decided on a 10-year sentence. We can do better, if we try!

I am a retired newspaper reporter and editor having worked for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., for 32 years. I am a 1964 graduate of New York University where I majored in journalism and minored in marketing under a public relations program. I served three years in USA Army in Public Information in Germany and Colorado, 1954-57. I currently hold the position of Adjutant with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Robert F. Garrison Post 3350 in East Rockaway, New York. I am a lifelong fan of Bing Crosby, the greatest singer of the 20th Century and an Oscar-winning movie actor.

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