A Duty for the Greater Good, not a Privilege

A Duty for the Greater Good, not a Privilege

Andy Crockett

Anyone with a modicum of compassion can see that something brutally wrong is happening in Derek Chauvin’s treatment of George Floyd, and so the guilty verdict on all three counts delivered by the jury means justice to many. As the recent Alameda Sun editorial by Shanti Brien and Jace Porter (“Bring the Power and Privilege of Diverse Juries to Alameda County, July 22) says, quoting Superior Court Judge Kimberly Colwell, “It is the jury that decides what happens, not the judge. That way justice is not up to one individual; it’s the community deciding what will happen.”

But Brien and Porter appear to misconstrue the judge’s words when they write that the “privilege” of serving on a jury offers the “incredible opportunity … to create the justice we have been seeking.” Jurors aren’t activists; likewise, elected officials shouldn’t influence verdicts, especially by inciting riots. This is mob justice, fueled by emotion.

Yes, juries should reflect the diversity of citizens in a community; in effect they are the greater citizenry. Prospective jurors are first interviewed by both sides for bias. The selected jurors then assess evidence in terms of the judge’s instructions and the charges in the case. When video recordings make the verdict seem obvious, the legal proceedings can seem pointless.

Many will recall how the judge in the Derek Chauvin trial reprimanded a defense witness, an off-duty EMT, for arguing with the court. After the trial, more than one juror revealed that they concealed their bias going in: to see Chauvin convicted. Had Brien and Porter served for the OJ Simpson trial, would they helped create the same kind of justice?

We all have our examples of miscarried justice. The Tony Timpa case, hauntingly similar to Floyd’s, received hardly any publicity. Timpa died on Aug. 10, 2015, after an officer with the Dallas Police Department knelt on his neck. One can argue that his treatment was crueler, more unjust, if one can make such comparisons, because a schizophrenic Timpa himself called emergency services to come to his aid. Timpa did not have Floyd’s criminal record.

Yet the judge threw out the case because he felt the officers hadn’t acted recklessly, and then the officers were protected from the family’s federal suit by qualified immunity. Right now, in the aftermath of cases like Floyd’s and Timpa’s, Congress is wrestling with this judge-made doctrine, and human rights groups are hoping they don’t compromise on the liability of officers or their employers.
How would I conduct myself as a juror in a trial of these officers? With prior knowledge of the event, I might be nullified. But once selected, I’d have to weigh the evidence and arguments against the charges and then render a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt. Why activists haven’t swarmed Dallas demanding the officers be tried, I can only speculate. But fortunately, even though it may be too late for justice in the Timpa case, principles like qualified immunity are being challenged in light of it.

Jurors can’t be activists. The branches of government — legislative, judicial, executive — must each respect the boundaries of the other two. Sure, let’s petition and demonstrate — nonviolently — against unjust laws, violations of civil rights, parks inaptly named, symbols that upset, drivers that endanger, all of it.

But let the systems of justice and law making — in their at times frustratingly slow unfolding —work as designed and consider jury service more a duty to the greater good than a privilege to create, because next time the wave of emotional outrage may be against you or yours, and you’ll want impartiality and fairness. Case closed.

Andy Crockett lives in Alameda.