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Wilson: Right to trial by jury not universal
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As we celebrate Juror Appreciation Week in Rockdale County, let’s take a moment to understand its historical context and its modern day significance. The right to trial by jury is as fundamental to our system of justice and liberty as the right to vote. This cornerstone of our democracy is guaranteed to American citizens in the U. S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It is a right, a privilege and an obligation of citizenship. As important as it is to our courts and our way of life, it does not exist everywhere around the world.

The people’s right to Trial by Jury places significant power in the hands of average citizens and serves as a check / balance on the power of elected officials. The people are asked to pay careful attention to detailed testimony and other evidence putting aside personal biases to reach a fair and impartial assessment of the facts to determine guilt or innocence, liability or not. We are not a perfect nation, nor do we have anything like a perfect legal system, but our tradition of citizen juries provides a remarkable opportunity for ordinary Americans to participate in an intimate and challenging way in maintaining the rule of law, acting as the conscience of the community and building a just society. Thomas Jefferson described Trial by Jury as “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

The concept of trial by jury has evolved from its origins in Europe. Juries were a tool for the king. The jury gave evidence, but only the king or his ministers made the final decision. In 1215 the church disallowed the practice of the water and fire ordeals as methods of proving guilt or innocence. Trial by battle remained at this point, but was already out of favor. Juries came to be seen as a protector of the accused against the very harsh criminal laws of the day. For hundreds of years, the sentence for most convicted felons in England was death. 

Eventually, the jury became a group of men (white male land owners only), called in to determine or decide the facts. At first, these were people familiar with all or some part of the incident involved. Having heard about it was sufficient qualification in many cases. From this step, we moved along to a jury of men who knew nothing about the facts, but who were gathered together for the purpose of listening to the evidence and then deciding what was true.

In the American colonies, juries demonstrated their resistance to what they perceived as unjust British laws. In response, the British set up special courts that did not use trial by jury. The right to trial by jury of one's peers became a symbol of the overthrown power of the king. Our ideal of “equal justice for all” probably could not have evolved without this strong belief in the wisdom of the jury.

The public may be surprised to learn of some of the places where this right does not exist, for example, Israel, South Africa, Germany, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and The Netherlands. In Mexico’s dysfunctional legal system, crooked cops regularly solve cases by grabbing the first person they find, often along with a cooked-up story from someone claiming to be an eyewitness. Prosecutors and judges play along, eager to calm a growing public outcry over high crime rates and rising violence from Mexico's war on illicit drug gangs. In practice, suspects are often presumed guilty. More than 85 percent of those charged with a crime are sentenced. There are no jury trials.

In the Netherlands, the criminal justice system is highly professorial by nature. The lay-element has almost totally disappeared in their system. The Netherlands criminal law system does not make use of juries, and lay judges do not normally try criminal cases. Judges are not elected, but instead appointed by the government. There is no direct public influence on the appointment of the members of the judiciary.

The American right to trial by jury should not be taken for granted. It is to be respected, protected and celebrated. It must be preserved, not simply because it is old, venerated, loved, or any of those things. It should be because it is essential to human liberty, individual dignity, and a free society. If political freedom and a stable society are to be preserved, it is essential that there be a system of justice in which the public has confidence and willingness to trust. Our rights are enforced, not through the legislature, not through the executive, but through the courts, through trials. It is there that the administration of justice is brought close to the people. The jury is a means of bringing the whole power of the citizenry to bear upon the daily administration of justice. Jurors must answer to each other and to their own consciences. They must also live in the community where they make these decisions.

The right to trial by jury is a serious matter. Let’s protect, respect and celebrate our right to Trial by Jury.

The week of October 21-28, 2013 has been designated Juror Appreciation Week by the Rockdale Courts and recognized in a Proclamation by the Board of Commissioners. Local businesses, good corporate citizens and community focused organizations have demonstrated their commitment to the jury process and gratitude to jurors who serve so dutifully. Elementary school students have studied the history and impact of the jury process and written insightful essays on the topic.

We hope that the entire Rockdale County community will join us in recognizing the essential role that the jury process plays in protecting our American way of life. We sincerely appreciate the patriotic sacrifice and service of those who report to jury duty when summoned.

Thank you.

Ruth Wilson
Rockdale County Clerk of Superior and State Courts