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

Past Chair, Fully Informed Jury
Association/American Jury Institute

Houston, TX

I was deeply amused by Tim Cavanaugh's November Rant. It extends the notion that a jury is a "group of twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty." But all of the examples he gave were from large cases; from what I've read and heard about smaller cases, there's at least somewhat more common sense at work.

This makes perfect sense: If a case looks like it's going to take longer than the week you're already expecting to be there, most rational people of average intelligence are going to figure out how to get kicked off the jury.

Unfortunately, this means that it's primarily the most difficult or famous cases that are determined by slack-witted dullards. At least in most places, people too lazy to register to vote aren't even eligible to be jurors. Imagine what the juror pool would look like if we included them.

Jason Kodat
Toledo, OH

Freedom Riders

Jacob Sullum's story of motorcyclists successfully fighting helmet laws ("Freedom Riders," November) brought a smile to my face.

Arizona had a helmet law. The motorcyclists gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot, and it was repealed. In a subsequent unrelated matter, the legislature, infuriated at voters for passing a medical marijuana exemption, passed laws overturning the will of the voters. Voters responded by passing an initiative that took away the legislature's power to override voter-passed initiatives. So now when the Insurance Institute comes bribing them to pass a helmet law, legislators can only shrug.

Finally, the state Capitol where the legislature meets lies in a traffic circle. Whenever the local motorcycle clubs perceive a law being introduced that is detrimental to their cause, many hundreds of motorcyclists show up, dressed in their finest gun-toting apparel, and circle the building, revving their engines. Imagine holding a fundraiser and having this club show up to "support" your re-election. The message is received like no other, and the bill dies in committee.

As an activist said, "If you aren't having fun, you are doing something wrong."

Powell Gammill
Phoenix, AZ

I am all in favor of people making their own mistakes when only they suffer the consequences. But when I pay for those mistakes, it becomes my business too. When people are injured in accidents, not only law enforcement but medical services spring into action, paid for by taxes and insurance. There is plenty of good evidence that helmets and seat belts greatly reduce these costs.

When I lived in Kenya in the early 1970s, I met a young Kenyan doctor, working in a state-run hospital, who lamented that he spent all his time patching up victims of road accidents instead of preventing or curing other ailments. Every person who does not wear a seat belt is imposing a cost on others: the part of the expected extra cost of accidents that is covered by public services or private insurance.

When I see motorcyclists lying at the roadside like deer, raccoons, and other road kill, I may decide that they made their own bad choices and that it is none of my business. Then again, I may decide that I would rather live in a more humane country, one which provides some public services and then imposes reasonable regulations to minimize their cost.

Bernard Wasow
Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Because of a congenital birth defect and the limits of transplantation, I have been blessed with the need for not one, not two, but now three kidneys via transplant. Thrill-seeking motorcyclists provide a continuing source of organs for folks like me. I live in Michigan, which has about a four-year average wait for a transplant. Ohio, without a helmet law, has about an 18-month average wait.

Live free and die, I say.

James W. Govert
Ann Arbor, MI

Correction: The Crescent City and the Fiscal Black Hole" (December) misidentified Alaska Congressman Don Young as a senator. In fact, he is a member of the House of Representatives.