Am I alone in thinking that the judicial system has been getting too much of a free pass from the Reality Check Department?
The judge-jury-lawyers-witnesses idea was a good back in 1215 when King John signed the Magna Carta. It was quite an improvement over one king’s or nobel’s thumbs up/thumbs down for judicial decision making; but some 900 years later, I’m wondering if the judicial system isn’t due for an overhaul.
Consider how courtroom decision making is based on argument. The facts aren’t as important as how well the issues, whether they are facts or not, are argued. Trial by argument makes about as much sense as trial by ordeal. We may not use dunking chairs any more but the process is more or less the same. Johnnie Cochran’s brilliant, if onerous, defense of O. J. Simpson comes to mind as an example. “If the glove does not fit, you must aquit!” OJ was freed by a nursery rhyme disguised as an argument. The bloody facts played second fiddle to staging of the agruments, as only the grandstanding in an argument-based trial system can allow.
Consider whether 12 random people have any qualifications whatsoever to decide legal issues. The people on juries rarely, if ever, have the basic knowledge, let alone the legal experience to decide cases. It’s no longer like King John’s day when cases were on the level of who took the cow. Think about an international banking and wire fraud case with shell companies, insider trading and international money laundering. Are a housekeeper, an auto mechanic, a beautician, a great grandfather, a high school dropout, and their peers supposed to be able to figure this out? Kind of makes the dunking chair a little more attractive, doesn’t it?
And what is with trying the same issues over and over again? Why should a Kentucky court have to retry facts that were already decided in similar cases in Ohio, North Dakota and the Kentucky court next door to it? Consider the magician Uri Geller, who sued James Randi for defaming him by exposing his psychic powers as conjuring tricks, and lost. He’s at it again, this time in a similar lawsuit with the Electronic Frontiers Foundation over a YouTube post that shows him up to his same old tricks. http://www.eff.org/legal/cases/sapient_v_geller/ How much money in lawyers fees, court time, judge, bailiff, recorder, clerks and other people’s time can this be worth? One’s “right” to their day in court really is questionable when it comes to trying the same old foibles again and again.
Then there’s the issue of nonsense itself, not being tried, but being used to try cases. Those interested are referred to the two excellent, and frightening, documentaries about the West Memphis Three. Then teens, the three were accused of murdering three little boys by a creek in West Memphis in Arkansas. After 10 hours of grilling, the police squeezed a confession out of one of the teens, who also happens to be border-line retarded. A prosecution witness, whose correspondence courses in satanic rituals qualified him as an “expert,” testified that, “Yep, these are just the kind of godless, teenage heavy metal fans who would commit murders like that.” Of course it was off to death row and life terms for the teens, who have now spent half a lifetime fighting for their lives. This miscarriage of justice was also notable for the sociopathic step-father of one of the murdered boys who had all his teeth pulled before they could be matched to the bite marks on his dead step-son. He was never even questioned. The bites did not match the dental patterns of any of the WM3.
We could go into the absurdity of lifetime appointments for judges; the conflicts of interest in the processes to remove crooked lawyers and incompetent judges; the lack of penalties for over-zealous proscutors and lazy defense attorneys; the contradictions in sentencing guidelines… But you get the idea.
The judicial system seems long overdue for some skeptical inquiry and reform.
I didn’t vote in the poll because I would have said, “yes and no”. I think the basic concept is excellent, however, the present execution is pretty bad. First, judges are often political appointees rather than the most comptetent people. Second, juries are made up of a number of types of people: 1) Good citizens who are socially responsible, 2) those who have an ax to grind, 3) those who are too dumb to get out of jury duty. Unfortunately, the first class is usually in the minority. Third, the lawyers try to choose jurors who are most likely to vote their way, not those who would do the best job.
I suggest that prospective jurors be given tests to verify decent intelligence, decent reasoning skills, objectivity, that no on can get out of jury duty (but pay them an adequate compensation and have comfortable, functional facilities for them), that they are chosen by lot rather than by the lawyers.
Institute very severe penalties for any court or police personnel who are found to have lied, withheld evidence, or did an inadequate investigation.
It is very difficult to answer this with a yes or no, and some of the other poll responses are obviously a joke.
There are many issues with the Judicial System. (I am assuming we are limiting the discussion to the US Justice system)
In addition to the issues you have pointed out, here are some more to consider:
- The laws themselves. We have stacked law upon law through the history of our nation, in many cases the Laws themselves could be greatly simplified, made more concise. The variations in Laws between states has created a quagmire of Laws that only the well initiated can traverse.
- Representation in Court. Due to the complexities of Laws, and the courtroom rules that must be followed in order to present your case, the average person must rely heavily on their Lawyer to present their case effectively. Those who cannot afford a competent Lawyer run the risk of receiving an unjust ruling.
- Habeas Corpus. Even having your case heard anymore is not guaranteed.
- Racist/Cruel/Lazy/Corrupt/Disillusioned Police. This is not unique to our generation. However, methods used by Law Enforcement who are not on the up-and-up, are enhanced by technology, Laws that favor Police over victims of Law Enforcement abuse. With this said, I do think there are some Law Enforcement representatives that do their best to follow the law. However, see my 1st point.
- Political influence on Judges. Gonzolez. Enough said.
- The Nancy Grace factor. Your supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It seems that circumstances alone can convict someone these days. (I hear Curly of the 3 stooges now “I was a victim of circumstance!”). Juries are often filled with people who are predisposed to convicting people on scant evidence.
I’m sure people who are close to the Judicial system or who have been victimized by it, can relate many more issues.
Ok, now. What can be done about it.
I’m sure all of you share my frustration with the way the Justice Department has responded (or NOT) in the Roberto Gonzolez situation. And even more frustration is derived from the seemingly ineffective Congress in doing anything about it.
On a more somber note for Atheists, how are conservative Justice appointments going to alter the interpretation of our laws and drive us toward a theistic society? These are lifetime appointments. Many years of influence on Court Rulings with precedents set that will influence court cases for generations to come.
The one question I always have with this sort of thing is what’s supposed to replace it that’s any better?
There are some countries without jury systems. They have “professional” judges render decisions. But then you and I know what happens—people accuse the judges of corruption, of stupidity, of being a tool for the government, et cetera.
Humans are naturally fallible, so clearly perfection isn’t an achievable goal.
I do agree there are some fundamental flaws in the judicial system, and while no system is perfect, ours is sufficiently imperfect as to warrant some experimentation with alternatives. We incarcerate an anomalously high proportion of our population compared to most developed nations, and I think this is the result of some underlying philosophocal notions, particularly the religious concept of retribution as a way of balancing some metaphysical moral scale. We have had periods in our history when we seemed interested in addressing root causes of crime and reforming criminals, but those ideas have been tossed aside as vestiges of the dreaded L-word (liberal) thinking. Instead we believe in deterrance by the example of harsh punishment and in automatic formulae for sentencing to reduce the compassionate mitigation of judges and juries, and I think it is very hard to argue with any empirical justification that this strategy makes society safer or is a cost-effective, ethical approach to crime.
Beyond the old debate about reducing crime through reducing poverty and its attendant ills, which as an old-fashioned liberal I would suggest requires a commitment of money and effort on the part of government unpopular and unlikely in the current political climate, I think some of the details of the system are contributing to the problem. The widespread reluctance to serve on juries and the ease of avoiding such service means that the demographic makeup of juries is hardly representative of that of the defendant population, so even the potential benefit of “jury of your peers,” and it’s not clear this is still the best way to achieve fair and appropriate adjudiciation anyway, is not realized. And then there is the rather strange adversarial system, in which lawyers are expected to strictly argue in whatever manner benefits their client, with the assumption that they need not consider actual facts (such as guilt) or moral issues because the balance of the two advocates with the impartial judge or jury in between making decisions, will all work out for the best in the end. Clearly, this is often not the case, and the quality of the representation a defendant can afford makes an inappropriately large difference in outcome. Perhaps something more akin to the French system, in which the judge calls in independant experts to help interpret evidence and the arguments of the advocates, rather than the expert-for-hire approach taken here, might prove better at getting at the facts of a case, though I can’t say I know eneough about the specifics of that system to know it’s flaws as well as I think I know those of the American system. In any case, I agree the system is broken, and that our penal institutions and our neglect of social problems both almost guarantee the level of incarceration and recidivism we see. And don’t even get me started on gun laws and their contribution to the level of crime in the U.S. compared to elsewhere! In any case, whatever the specific alternative we might experiment with, I have to believe some kind of scientific study of outcomes is possible, and we need the authorities responsible for experimenting with improving the system to be sufficiently independant of political considerations to give real reform a real chance. Our culture values a “tough” approach which I think is a manifest failure, so public opinion cannot be the primary driving force behind changes in the system, as it currently seems to eb, or things will only get worse.
I know of a case where a girl claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a married man who had one daughter who was friends with her and went to the same school. This man happened to have many friends who all knew him to be very principled and that he had great moral integrity. Everyone he knew, besides the girl’s family, didn’t believe that he did it. The man used to do a carpool to and from school for them and another girl because they all lived nearby. Her story was that one day when he drove her home, he stopped in front of her house and assaulted her then (that alone seems far-fetched.)
The police found no physical evidence that the assault had taken place. The investigators even found evidence that contradicted the girl’s story.
But, the jury believed the girl’s testimony.
The man had to move out of his house because he could no longer be in contact with his daughter, or any child for that matter. If he saw, or even heard about a child in casual conversation, he had to write it down in a journal and tell some psychologist (my non-existant buddy, God knows why.) They were extremely harsh on him. He had to wear a transmitter, had to go to weekly group meetings (and pay thousands of dollars for it) so that they could “rehabilitate” him, and did everything they could to make life hard on him just to get him to confess to the crime because he still denied it. The school psychologist even tried to convince the man’s daughter that her father had done it so that they could get to him. That man still can not see his daughter, but he is still fighting.
You probably can’t find any articles about the case because it never got media attention, but I happened to know people involved in it and I have chosen to leave their names out.
All I know is that the jury made a choice with no solid evidence to prove it, and plenty of evidence against it, and caused an entire family to suffer for no reason. Why? Probably out of emotion. We’ve all seen the TV show where the alleged child molester gets off the hook, and we feel deep emotion stirred within us. Some think that it’s better to make sure that justice is served, even if innocent people get hurt along the way.
And even if he really did do it, the punishment for it was way too harsh and harmed another innocent person. The daughter, who didn’t do anything, can’t see her father until she’s eighteen. Imagine what it must be like not being able to see your own father while you’re growing up.
I remember my sixth grade teacher teaching us about the justice system. I remember her making it sound like the juries couldn’t possibly be biased and that they couldn’t possibly make mistakes. The justice system is run by humans. We all know that humans make mistakes.
Why is there this blind faith among some of the general public that the justice system is infallible? I think that part of it is because the general public is a bit arrogant in believing that they can make correct decisions all the time.
Fact of the matter is, there are UFO believers in the general public. Maybe I’m a little bit biased, but I have good reason not to want a UFO believer on my jury. You need logic to make a decision like that, and some people have no logic.
I’m sure that anyone who has served on more than a few juries has some stories to tell of incompetent jurors.
Long example. Don’t read if you are pressed for time.
This happened about thirty-five years ago. I was in the jury pool. The initial jurors were selected, and the lawyers began voir dire. One juror had a technical background and family status quite similar to mine. He was excused, and I was called. I answered the lawyer’s questions very simply and generically (I didn’t lie but I did slant). The D.A. excused everyone who had any technical, medical or college education. He let a telephone company supervisor stay on. She happened to also be a registered nurse, which he didn’t discover.
A black kid had ridden home on the bus from college one afternoon. He saw a group of high school friends talking in the parking lot of a liquor store and walked over to them. About then, a patrol car pulled up and told them to leave. The kid said they had a right to talk since they weren’t doing anything wrong. The officer got out of the car and gave the kid two sobriety tests. The kid put his foot down for a moment once. They gave him a breatholyzer which showed no alcohol. They brought him to the police station and ran blood and urine tests. Again, no alcohol. So they booked him for being under the influence of drugs.
The young, innocent public defender was quite incompetent (she admitted that it was her first case when the judge asked), but she asked why they had decided to give the kid a breatholyzer test. The officer said, there were empty beer cans on the ground in the parking lot. She didn’t ask if this would be common to find in a liquor store parking lot. The officers were quite willing to describe the situation.
Ten jurors (one who had slept through most of the trial, and one, a retired seaman, who spoke Yugoslavian far better than he did English) voted that the kid was guilty “because the cops had no reason to lie.”
I took the two of us quite a while to show them the irrationality of the reasoning the police used. We finally found the kid not guilty, but if the D.A. had been a bit more careful he could have dismissed me and the nurse, and the kid would have been found guilty and probably ruined the rest of his life.