Wednesday, May 17, 2006

When a jury of one's peers, well, isn't so much

The U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to be tried before our peers.

Or does it?

I have often wondered why people who are strongly opposed to the death penalty are automatically precluded from service in capital murder trials. Various surveys show more than 30 percent of the American public opposes the death penalty. Some of us -- for various reasons -- are adamantly opposed. When you take this population out of the potential pool of jurors, you are inherently giving the remaining pool a certain slant. Indeed, studies have confirmed that so-called "death-qualified juries" (that's the legal phrase that is used) are more conservative and conviction-prone than non-death-qualified juries.

All of this serves as the lead-in to an op-ed from today's Philadelphia Inquirer written by Bernard S. Brown. I don't 100 percent agree with it -- I'm not so much into civil disobediance, and that seems to be what the author is advocating.

However, it is interesting food for thought and definitely worth sharing:

Taking a reasoned stand on death and justice

A friend told me about his recent trip to the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center for jury duty. He had been drawn for a jury pool for a murder case. The prosecutor had asked him if he could carry out the law and vote to sentence someone to death. My friend had said no and was promptly sent home.

I was outraged. My friend is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I know. By eliminating him from the jury pool, they had deprived our community of exactly the sort of person who should be serving on a jury, and I was furious that he had been discriminated against for opposing a policy that should be opposed.

I believe taking life is only justified by saving life. Any other intentional killing is murder. If executing a murderer would deter would-be killers or protect the public better than life in prison, I would support it. The death penalty does not deter other murderers, though, and a prisoner behind bars is generally not a threat to others. Add in the racism, classism, and human errors that plague our criminal justice system, and I remain opposed.

What made my friend's story especially troubling was that I had just gotten a jury duty notice myself saying, "It's your turn!" So, what was I going to do?

I try to be an honest person, and if asked if I could uphold the law and put someone to death, I would have to say no. My commitment to life is stronger than my commitment to the law. When the state murders, I am bound to oppose the state.

That was a very unsettling conclusion. I could not convince myself to lie, so I devised a plan to mount a protest during jury selection: I would stand up, start reciting reasons to oppose the death penalty, and I wouldn't stop until they dragged me out. I figured it might cause a delay and a hassle, which, if multiplied by enough like-minded people, might make prosecutors hesitate before bringing capital charges. If I kept calm and polite, maybe I could sway others. I would just need to make one juror think twice in the penalty phase.

In the end, I was drawn for a jury pool in a civil case that was settled before trial. I was powerfully relieved and let down at the same time. I had been saved from having to be courageous, but all that preparation had been for nothing.

So what about next time? Since my big letdown, friends who are lawyers have told me that standing up and making a scene during jury selection would probably have little impact on the prosecutors or the judge. If I want to do something to make it harder for the state to take a life, they said, I should try to find some way to honestly answer the questions so that I can get onto a death-penalty jury.

Maybe there is enough wiggle room in my stance for me to honestly make it. If life in prison without parole would not protect others' lives as well as the death penalty, I could vote for death. Given, this stance pretty much limits the death penalty to prisoners who kill from within prisons -the Aryan Brotherhood, notorious for murdering from within maximum-security prisons, comes to mind - but it might put me in the position to argue for someone's life. And if that doesn't work, at least I can try out my speech.

About 30 % of Americans oppose capital punishment. I won't tell anyone to lie, but if there's some way we can find to honestly give the "right"answer to get onto death-penalty juries, that could amount to 3 or 4 people per jury. Those not selected can stand up and explain to the remaining juror candidates why they shouldn't support the death penalty, either.

Whatever we do, we can't be quietly swept out of the process. If we believe in life, we need to do something to defend it.

2 comments:

Ancient Clown said...

And one step further still...our continued silence to THIS is as worse than actively participating in it. Genocide, even slowly and quietly is still GENOCIDE.
The NEED to recognize the 'REAL WAR behind the Wars' is our only saving grace.
your humble servant,
Ancient Clown

Tyler Roznos said...

My only response to and liberal that opposes the death penalty is... put your self in the place of a victims family member... How would you feel if you knew that the murderer of your son or daughter was sitting comfortably in prison... I mean... sure they have to stay there for the rest of their life, but when you think about it... they get fed every day, they got a bed to sleep in... NO!! Murders and Traitors, and (i think the death penalty should include rapests as weel), there punishments are just. And for those who say their human rights are taken away... They forfeighted their rights when they took their victims

if you read this... feel free to tell me how you feel. if respect the oppinions of others