Thursday, February 17, 2011

Trial by Jury Summons

I had to reschedule an appointment yesterday because I realized that it conflicted with my upcoming jury duty summons (see Forge entry from 2/4). As I did that, it reminded me of a few examples of why I think of the whole process of jury duty as a waste of valuable time – not because the jury system itself is bad, but because as a free people, we’ve ruined it with our abuses.

Three cases in point, two of which come from a couple of those “true crime” programs (but which I have verified with more mainstream sources). My beloved Mrs H and I like those kinds of shows, though we prefer the ones with the more technical presentations – when you’ve worked for corrections, you learn to appreciate that kind of broadcast, and can get to be a bit of a mental challenge seeing if you can figure out “whodunit” before the show itself reveals it.
First: The Tim Masters case. (Link, and others, below.) An investigator (who was recently convicted of felony perjury for covering up evidence in this case) chased after Tim Masters, who was alleged at age 15 to have committed a brutal murder, based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, including that he made scary artwork of murder scenes. (I’d better watch out; based on my toons, I might someday be convicted if anyone living near me gets killed by someone else wielding a boomerang, or a giant wooden mallet.) Masters was finally convicted 12 years after the murder, but released 10 years later when DNA evidence showed he wasn’t part of the crime. It’s bad enough that a corrupt investigator was involved, but truly, even without that, the evidence was insufficient to convict – for an intelligent jury.

Second: The Robert Jason Burdick case. The case itself was prosecuted well; investigators had clear, undeniable evidence of Burdick’s DNA at the scene of many of his crimes. What struck me on this one was Burdick’s defense attorney, who was shown orating before the jury saying, if I may paraphrase, “This case is all about DNA. Without that, they have nothing.”

Um, yeah.

Third: I’ll reach back to the O. J. Simpson trial. Vincent Bugliosi’s excellent book Outrage showed how both sides (prosecution and defense) bungled this one; the winner was the ones that bungled least – and also had an immensely stupid jury on their side. The defense offered by Burdick’s lawyer seems outrageous until you recall how little Simpson’s jurors made of DNA evidence, and how gullibly they accepted bogus defense interpretations of it.

There is a quote – variously attributed to Herbert Spencer or Mark Twain – that a jury is composed of twelve persons of average ignorance (to which it is added, who decide who hired the better lawyer). Perhaps it will be said that the above cases are exceptional. My reply is first to tell that to Tim Masters, or to Burdick’s victims, or Simpson’s. Second, I don’t think these are the exception so much as that in most cases where it happens, the case is not sensational enough to warrant media coverage. I used to run a prison law library, so I frequently had access to inmate legal papers. I saw more than a few examples of inmates convicted on questionable evidence. The Innocence Project has managed to overturn 266 cases since 1992, makes it pretty clear that there are plenty more unknown examples the media doesn’t or didn't cover. (Note: 266 cases in 18 years may not seem like much, but it is, considering how much work is involved in each case.)

From all of this, it’s fairly clear I’ll have another rocket on my back when I fulfill my summons. The only way that won’t happen is if the jury pool has at least 30 people on it that the attorneys on either side consider less gullible or malleable than I am – and that’s not likely to happen.

Oh well. At least I can bring a book to read before I get called into the courtroom.

Prior Forge entry
Masters case
Burdick case


  1. Oops! Jim Broderick, accused of perjury that sent Tim Masters to prison, hasn't been convicted yet. However, two judges were recently voted out of office, who had been the prosecutors of Masters. Broderick is gonna be tough, because the main things he's guilty of aren't strictly illegal - like being a hard-headed,tunnel-visioned monomaniac for instance.

  2. Eh? The news program said he had been...ah well. Thanks.

  3. “This case is all about DNA. Without that, they have nothing.”

    Yep, reminds me of the Geisler quote he used to use in debates where he would be told his case for Christ was based only on the Bible: "That's like the defense saying, 'apart from your eyewitnesses you have very poor case.'"