Run Away, Jury!

Tim Cavanaugh was spot on in calling his diatribe against juries a rant ("Run Away, Jury!," November). Literally thousands of jury trials are successfully conducted in this country every day of the work week. On the basis of a few aberrations, Cavanaugh slanders all jurors as "a bunch of louts, nincompoops, and media whores who need to stop trusting their guts and start listening to people smarter than themselves."


Juries predate the electronic media and newspapers; they have worked well and continue to do so. In my 28th year as a federal district judge I've presided over hundreds of trials and thousands of cases. I am continually inspired and invigorated by the intelligence and judgment of the jury.

Many things are wrong with our legal system. Jury trials fail not because of "louts, nincompoops, and media whores" on juries, but because soi-disant "people smarter than themselves" such as judges, lawyers, and media types subvert the system.

Not all high-profile trials are fiascos like the O.J. case. My colleague Richard Matsch presided over the Oklahoma City bombing case, which has been universally recognized as a paradigm of justice, efficiency, and decorum. Judges who take charge do not permit the lunacy of which Cavanaugh complains.

Jurors search for justice. Most often they find it, despite rather than because of the treatment they receive. Nincompoops? They are us.

John L. Kane Jr.
U.S. District Judge, District of Colorado
Denver, CO

Jurors are not only the conscience of the community; they are also the most conscientious actors in the American legal system. What Cavanaugh complains of is the consequence not of bad jurors but of bad lawyering.

When juror John Ostrom states that "whenever Merck was up there [on the witness stand], it was like wah, wah, wah," he is demonstrating the failure of Merck to present a cogent case through its witnesses. Lawyers are supposed to be communicators and persuaders, yet many are incapable of making their case understandable to a lay jury (perhaps because they don't understand it all that well themselves). Lawyers and expert witnesses who lean on legal buzzwords and technical jargon, or who talk down to jurors, are not doing their jobs and can expect to lose.

The average juror in America has about half a year more education than the average American and tends to take his or her job far more seriously than judges or lawyers do. Jurors have one case, and they want to get it right. Lawyers and judges become jaded, and they have numerous cases on their dockets at any one time.

Is the jury system perfect? Of course not. Is the alternative--trial by judge--any better? Again, of course not.

While an individual juror may not have an advanced scientific or business background, the chance of one or more people on a jury understanding such evidence (and being able to help the remaining jurors through it) is relatively high. Almost none of the judges in American courtrooms are trained in such disciplines.

It's easy to find anecdotes to impugn any human institution, but such stories rarely give a full, fair, or balanced picture. Out of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who serve on a jury every year, the vast majority do so with intelligence, a sense of justice, and the willingness to give all sides a fair hearing. Scapegoating the jury for the failure of bad lawyers to communicate a coherent case has it backward. We should not reform the jury system merely to make the world a safe place for bad lawyers.

Clay S. Conrad

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