One of my favorite writers, Steven Landsburg, has just published his third book: “More Sex is Safer Sex” In it he poses several interesting and provoking issues, some of which I think would make pretty decent great debates. In this case, the issue is juries.
To summarize his argument, in most other facets of American life, we seem to value the idea that people make the best choices when they have the most information. But in the case of jury trial, that principle is stood on its head: judges often decide what information is or isn’t relevant, often excluding key factors in a case. They are generally barred from getting information from any other source: even when that source is often more factually accurate and sourced than what can be presented at trial.
The question is, how can we trust juries to determine whether some element of the trial has 30% or 70% relevance to a finding, but not trust them to determine whether another element has no relevance? If we can’t trust them to find some fact (such as sexual history or prior conviction) is irrelevant to a rape allegation, how can we trust them to determine what presented evidence is or isn’t relevant, or to sort out conflicting DNA experts? If they are so irrational that they cannot be allowed near a newspaper editorial (which may, in fact, raise good points they otherwise might not have heard!) then how can they be trusted to reach findings? Evidence in virtually every other walk of life requires background knowledge to truly understand: in trials, however, this background knowledge is often banned or skewed. And if a juror tries to obtain evidence and assess its credibility, they are committing a crime!
Take the case of Oliver Jovanovic, who was convicted of imprisoning and abusing one Madame X. The judge in this case excluded an email correspondence between the two in which Madame X had “boasted of her enthusiasm for sadomasochistic sex.” Also excluded were the fact that she had indeed been an enthusiastic participant in these practices as she said in her email. Also excluded was a past history of making what turned out to be false accusations of sexual abuse. Jovanovic was then sent to jail for 20 months until his family managed to overturn his conviction after spending roughly half a million dollars.
Think about what that works out to as a system. It means that you can be convicted on the basis of a completely artificial and crafted picture of reality, but if you are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money, then you can afford to have a different picture of reality portrayed and accepted into law (and subsequently get off).
Again, the question is why we have jury trials at all if we can’t trust juries?