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I don’t know this jury, but I love this jury.
My awe has nothing to do with their verdict. It has everything to do with their conduct.
Last week, I read an article about a criminal trial involving a Cleveland woman accused of intentionally backing her SUV into her husband (and then putting the car in drive and running over him again, just for good measure). The jury convicted her. But no thanks to the police investigation. According to the article, the jury was none too impressed with that.
After the verdict was read, the jury submitted a letter — signed by every juror — to Judge Brendan Sheehan, who filed it under seal in February. Don’t ask me how, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer obtained a copy of that letter. And here’s where it gets exciting.
This three-page letter did not criticize the jury system, or the defendant, or the attorneys, or even the judge. Their criticism was aimed squarely at the police officers involved in the murder investigation.
The defendant claimed it was an accident. But there was a key eyewitness (an 11-year old) who was never asked to give a formal statement. There was video footage of a firefighter pointing out damage to the front end of the SUV. Despite both those facts, the investigating officers actually considered the incident an “accident” (at least initially).
And the jury had something to say about that. They wrote:
According to our interpretation of the body camera footage, [the officers] acted in a flippant, indifferent manner by not taking more witness statements and collecting more evidence while initially on the scene. …
As ordinary citizens — not police experts — we find [the officers’] behavior in responding to this incident to be inadequate and a disservice to the citizens of Cleveland.
You might wonder how that opinion factored into their views of the evidence. The jury assumed it would be a concern, so they proactively put that issue to bed:
This statement in no way undermines nor expresses any reservation in our verdict.
But the jury didn’t throw the entire Cleveland Police Department under the bus. Instead, they acknowledged the difficulties and dangers of the job, and expressed respect for the hard work many police officers do. In fact, they even provided specific examples of appreciation by thanking the CPD for their efforts during the 2016 Republican National Convention and the NBA Championship parade downtown honoring the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Still, the jury said, Cleveland’s citizens “deserve more.”
The jury could have put the entire trial behind them the moment they rendered their verdict. But they didn’t. It’s the action of penning the letter that I find so extraordinary.
- This jury was a cohesive group. Members respected each other enough to come together, decide what they wanted to share, and to collectively agree on the content of the letter. They clearly worked well together.
- The jury paid attention to the evidence. They rendered a verdict based on that evidence, and did not let their frustrations regarding the police investigation get in their way of supporting the elements of the charge with the evidence they heard inside the courtroom.
- The jury was invested in the outcome. So much so that they wrote a three-page letter to the judge. They wanted their voices heard, even though their job as jurors was finished.
- The jury valued the integrity of the judicial system. Rather than run to the nearest reporter or vent on social media, this jury expressed their views privately, and respected the judge enough to handle the information in the letter appropriately.
Our jury system is one of the foundations of our democracy, and without it? Well, I shudder to think. The Seventh Amendment of our Constitution — and part of the Bill of Rights — gives us the right to a jury trial.
At a time when jury trials are seemingly an endangered species, we would be wise to consider where our justice system would be without juries. Trusting our fellow citizens, our peers, to hear the facts, weigh the evidence and issue a verdict is, admittedly, a gamble. But despite the gamble, juries try their very best to do a good job and to “get it right.”
The citizens of Cleveland were well-served by the 12 men and women on this jury. They didn’t just show up for jury duty. They embraced it. As we should all aspire to do.
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