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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Mode of Trial: Jury Judicial
The tradition of a trial by jury in the United States is older than the Republic itself, having arisen from traditions that were rooted in English life in the thirteenth century. The right to a trial by jury is deeply embedded in the American democratic ethos. The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee the right to a jury for all criminal cases and in all civil suits exceeding twenty dollars. In addition the United States constitution, each state guarantees a trial by jury.
The right to a trial by jury is essential to our democracy as it was the colonists’ loss of that right that helped spark the Revolutionary War. Colonists knew the jury was a safeguard against possible governmental tyranny and oppression. The jury system provides a balance of the power of the government with the power and Jury service is one of the most important duties members of a free society are asked to perform. All persons involved in criminal or civil cases have the right to have a jury of their fellow citizens hear and decide their cases A jury’s duty is to determine if a charge is a reasonable interpretation of a law, and if so, that it applied to the defendants; and if, with all of the available evidence presented and dispassionately assessed, it supports a conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, social and economic biases exist in the jury system that undermine the principles of the jury. The films Twelve Angry Men and Runaway Jury both identify “imperfections” which are inherent in the American judicial system and are especially brought to light by citizen participation in the rule of law. The direct participation of the general public in the legal system leaves it vulnerable to suboptimal outcomes as individuals are prone to making decisions based on emotions, preconceived notions and prejudices rather than by making analytical and unbiased judgments. Defendants are allowed the right to choose to have a trial by jury or have the case decided up by the Judge. In most instances defendants and their legal counsel opt to have a trial by jury because it is believed that someone who is not trained in the law and legal proceedings may be easier swayed and influenced than a judge.
Twelve Angry Men is a courtroom drama set in a jury deliberation room where the twelve male members of jury convene to decide upon the innocence or guilt of a young man accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. A unanimous vote is necessary to either convict or acquit the accused. In the event that a jury is unable to completely agree upon a verdict results in a “hung jury” whereby the trail may need to be conducted again. Initially, eleven of the jury members decide upon a guilty verdict and subsequently the film delves into the jury’s analysis of the evidence of the case, a procedure that creates tension amongst the members and casts doubt on the evidence of the case. The film demonstrates the interaction and relationships between the twelve jury members and the dynamics that play a role in a group decision-making process.
The movie appears to affirm the ideals presented in the United States Constitution that assures defendants the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. However, a shortcoming of the jury system is illustrated in the film by the misinterpretation of the law regarding jury commands. A jury’s responsibility is to focus on the evidence of a case and either decides to acquit the defendant or finds the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence that proves guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” is based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, in a case. . However, it does not mean an absolute certainty.
The jury members in Twelve Angry Men, though, interpret guilt as determined “beyond any doubt at all” whereby eleven of the members of the jury justify their decision of rendering a guilty verdict by discounting the evidence of the witnesses rather than carefully analyzing the testimony of the witness and the evidence presented in the trial. Owing to this blunder, this film comprises of diverse characters in the jury that casts doubt on the some of the witnesses and evidence if it is in favor of the defendant. The most horrible instance is Juror #9, who totally slanders the elderly witness based entirely on his appearance. This is not only a pure assumption that the witness made up his testimony, but exhibits prejudice against the elderly as people who fabricate stories to merely get attention.
Another indication of deficiency in the jury system can be interpreted by the selection of jurors in the film. A jury of one’s peers is a guaranteed right of criminal defendants, in which “peer” means an “equal.” Courts have interpreted “jury of one’s peers” to mean that the available jurors include a broad spectrum of the population, particularly of race, national origin and gender. Jury selection may include no process that excludes those of a particular race or intentionally narrows the spectrum of possible jurors.
The selection of an all-white, all-male jury in the film reflects a bias that may have served to disadvantage the defendant. The pool of jurors selected for the case did not reflect the diversity of the communities. There were no women selected on the jury, just a minority juror, an alien born citizen, a blue-collar worker, and a few professionals. The existence of women and more minorities on the jury may change the dynamic of the jury, the men perhaps would have felt more self-conscious yelling in front of or at women, and the racial prejudices that were obvious in the film may been non existent had there been minority jurors. While this criticism may seem somewhat minor, the absence of a diverse socio-economic makeup of the group critically biases a jury and may lead to a suboptimal decision.
Juror #3, the character played by Lee J. Cobb berates the other jurors and attempts to convince the other jury members of the defendant’s guilty. It is finally revealed that he is someway trying to punish the defendant in as a result of his own disengagement with his son. The end culminates with Juror # 3 radically tearing up his a picture of his son and having a total breakdown on the jury room table. It can be argued that that it is not entirely possible for a juror to leave his or her personal experiences/baggage at the door and to be completely uninfluenced by the circumstances of his or her past. People’s experiences outline how they view particular situations. However, juror #3’s personal anger at his son initially left him so jaded the he was incapable of being impartial and analyzing evidence fairly. Even if it is true that people experience difficulty altering their defined views, it is not acceptable that Cobb was unable to separate his emotions and feelings towards his own son and the defendant.
Although the film identifies the weaknesses in the human character by the inability to portray neutrality and impartiality Twelve Angry Men leaves an understanding that even though the jury system is defective and has inherent weaknesses, justice can still be achieved. There is a relief seeing that one man’s eagerness to confront what eleven other jurors have regarded as settled at the outset. We see that the system works and think justice is achieved when the influence of one man causes the other jurors to question and carefully analyze the case and eventually reverse their initial hasty decision.
Meanwhile, Runaway Jury is based on the case of Celeste Wood, widow of Jacob Wood, who dies when a failed day trader at her husband’s stock brokerage firm shows up at his former workplace with an automatic rifle and opens fire on his former colleagues. The young widow holds a civil suit against a powerful corporation, Vicksburg Firearms, in an endeavor to hold the gun manufacturer liable and seek restitution for her husband’s death. The attorney for the plaintiff is Wendell Rohr (played by Dustin Hoffman) attempted to portray the firearms manufacturer as legally accountable for the death of Jacob Wood since the firm did not adhere to federal regulations regarding the sale and distribution of their product
Since a victory for the plaintiff could easily lead to other suits, eventually bankrupting firearms manufacturers, Vicksburg hires Rankin Fitch (played by Gene Hackman) to select members of the jury that he believes may favor the defense.
The corporate board of directors of the firearm manufacturer is confident that they can win his case by hiring Rankin Fitch as part of their legal team. The skill of the prosecuting and defending attorneys in picking jury members who may be sympathetic to their side has a greater impact on the outcome of the trial than evidence provided during it. Fitch is a jury consultant who arms himself with all information about jurors in order to guarantee the result of the trial in Vicksburg Firearm’s favor. Fitch learns the incriminating secrets of the jurors hearing the evidence and attempts to influence jurors in his favor. The process of jury selection by means of a jury consultant somewhat inhibits the trial process as many trials are won and lost by selecting a particular composition of the jury and not because of the strength of the evidence presented. However, it’s not because jury consultants are trying to stack the deck. It’s because jury consultants and lawyers are successful or unsuccessful in figuring out which potential jurors may be unreceptive to their message and getting rid of them.
The shadowy campaign of Fitch to influence the jury is hindered by Nick Easter, another deliberator that also has his own agenda on the case. He serves as one of the jurors too and he has his own plans of swaying the jury. Juror #9, Nicholas Easter, the character played by John Cusack, is a worker at a videogame shop who is also caught in the complexity of the case and instrumental in delivering a decision in the plaintiff’s favor. Nick Easter is in league with his longtime girlfriend, Marlee, played by Rachel Weisz, who arranges to inform both attorneys that the jury is for sale and that she has the ability to deliver a decision in either party’s favor. With clever interpersonal skills, Easter develops his role to be in a position to sway the jury, and Runaway Jury is quite insightful in revealing how jurors interact.
While the case is being processed in court, there is a dangerous alliance that plays at the New Orleans’ French Quarter. Fitch tries to conceive several means of making his plans materialize. The case goes into the root of gun violence and how crimes are perpetuated because of people’s easy access to guns. The different interactions between the main characters give color to court proceedings that proceed with tension and suspense. The main theme of the story is summed up in what one of the characters uttered, “Every jury has a leader, and that’s where you find your verdict.” This seems to imply that it is up to the people to judge the outcome of a case by just looking at the personalities of those comprising the jury.
The movie evolves into a depiction of jury tampering; which is the crime of unduly attempting to influence the composition and/or decisions of a jury during the course of a trial. The means by which this crime could be perpetrated can include attempting to discredit potential jurors to ensure they will not be selected for duty. Once selected, jurors could be bribed or intimidated to act in a certain manner on duty. It could also involve making unauthorized contact with them for the purpose of introducing prohibited outside information and then arguing for a mistrial. A less prominent theme in Runaway Jury but one that nonetheless plays a major role in any big trial is the influence of the media; a community saturated by one-sided publicity about a trial is unlikely to yield a fair and impartial Jury. Additionally, the conduct of the attorneys can be a factor in influencing a jury’s verdict. Jurors themselves are not immune from a charge of jury tampering, and anyone who has served on a jury and listened to the judge’s admonition to not discuss the facts of the case prior to being sent out to deliberate knows this
As member of the jury, one must be impartial in the execution of the case. Even if the defendant identifies a well-known person, the jury must avoid impropriety in all activities related to the case. He is obliged to conduct himself or herself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary regardless of how tempted he or she may be to act otherwise.
Both films tell of the sanctity of the work of those who serve as part of the jury. It highlights what the consequences are in cases when the jury is biased and prejudiced to one party. As an issue on ethics and morality, Runaway Jury reveals a broader the issue than the regulation of firearm sales. Mainly, it dwells on the process of how many large firms do business, practice law and circumvent the law by engaging in tactics and strategies to benefit themselves at a cost to society. As for the issue of jury tampering: as the American population adopts more of an individualistic attitude and has less of a reliance on communal responsibility or standardized values, individual differences will increase. The result will be that fewer generalizations about jurors and group behavior can be made making it more difficult for attorney and jury consultants to choose particular jurors for their benefit. The endless fascination of the jury system is to see whether the layman amateur drawn from the wide public, disciplined by the trial process and by an obligation to reach a group verdict can somehow work efficiently and equitably.
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