A Juror’s Duty to Acquit or Convict on a Lesser Charge to Reform Criminal Justice System

Prisoners in Louisiana

New Orleans   Jury service is a citizen’s obligation in the United States.  In the smaller City of New Orleans my fellow jurors and I are called to the jury pool every two years for a month of service in the criminal courts.  The pool is broken in half each month so each juror draws between eight and ten days and dutifully reports with badge and bar code in hand on the appointed mornings by 9 AM.  If not called on that day the release comes after three hours of reading, sleeping, conversation, or whatever tedium passes the time.  The process gives me a lot of time to think about the criminal justice system and our small, but critical role, as jurors and members of a jury.

If selected by a court, one goes through voir dire and the questions about your ability to render judgment on the matter from both prosecutors and the defense.   Sometimes I have served over the years on drug trials, minor matters, and in a rape case.  Other times I have been released for whatever reasons.  This month so far I have not been chosen, though it is no surprise, because I have been increasingly crystal clear in voir dire about what I have told them is the “evolution” of my thinking about our role in this increasingly unjust criminal justice system.

My service has coincided with an 8-part series in the former daily paper, The Times-Picayune, which finally assembled a lot of the horror where it was impossible to ignore.  Among the highlights:

  • From these very Orleans Parish Criminal Courts 5000 African-Americans are in Louisiana prisons from New Orleans and only 500 Caucasians are behind bars due to the criminalization of segments the community by the New Orleans Police Department.
  • Based on our population, Louisiana incarcerates more people than any other state in the USA and therefore Louisiana leads the world in incarceration.
  • Because of politics the Governor issues virtually zero pardons, the Legislature and the Governor’s office funds virtually no rehabilitation, the system has been privatized in such a way that local sheriffs must keep the incarceration rates up to stay alive financially, and there is no political will among elected officials in this increasingly “red” state to implement obvious and needed reform.
  • Putting a lie to every prosecutor’s statements to prospective jurors, because of mandatory sentencing judges have virtually no discretion in sentencing once the verdict is rendered, the Legislature is afraid to reform mandatory sentencing  in this political climate, so jurors even in relatively minor matters (drug possessions or minor amounts of drugs charged as distribution) voting to convict are imposing draconian sentences in both time and circumstance that are increasingly impossible for any juror with conscience to ignore.

In short it is impossible for me to rationalize that every part of the New Orleans and Louisiana criminal justice system is a travesty of injustice.  It is also impossible to pretend that when acting as a juror or potential juror that I can avoid taking personal responsibility for my role in aiding and abetting this injustice unless I act to resist and reform it.

Martin Luther King famously argued that it is our duty as American citizens to resist unjust laws and the systems that flow from them.

The United States Declaration of Independence, our founding document from 1776, is very clear about our responsibilities as citizens to resist and reform as a matter of both “right” and “duty:”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Politically and ethically, as a juror or potential juror, I now believe – and I have stated these opinions clearly in voir dire – that I have an obligation as a citizen to both seek to serve on juries in order to collectively act with my fellow citizens to act to reform this unjust system.  In recent weeks I have now stated clearly that if selected for a jury, because of the injustice of this system I will seek to persuade my fellow citizens that certainly if guilt is not proven that we will vote to acquit, but even if guilt is proven, that it is our obligation to convict on lesser charges in order to mitigate the cruel and unusual punishment entailed in mandatory sentencing, the impossibility of rehabilitation, the improbability of pardon, and the forced incarceration of prisoners for economic circumstances unrelated to their situation.

Does this seem quixotic?  Perhaps, but that is different than asking whether or not I have been effective.  When I have raised my objections in two voir dire proceedings last week, I have then been joined by as many as 25% of the pool that has expressed agreement or altered their positions to align with my own.   Unfortunately our “reward” has been a release from the jury, rather than any sense of reform.

It would be romantic to imagine that jurors would rise inside the system and refuse to act in any other way than I have indicated by either acquitting or reducing charges to force there to be some mercy meted out with real justice in a system now wholly corrupted by politics and money.  June will come, and we will all be swept away for another several years while a new pool will begin reporting for their service in this cynical process.

Nonetheless, when called, how can any juror in Louisiana or most other states in the country today, have any choice in exercising their right and duty as a citizen, but to strenuously, stridently, and strongly oppose everything about the process until the changes we demand have to come?  The excuse of a community’s security cannot be allowed to act as a blanket rationalization for a system that becomes so compromised that it cannot render justice without prejudice.  Where we are now, we can no longer allow ourselves to be blind to the injustice inherent in every part of the process and seeing clearly we have to act and are forced to resist and join with others to demand reform, as is also our right.

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