You don’t have to have legal associations, be black or even been born to know about the OJ Simpson murder trial, arguably the most famous legal trial of all time and an indelible part of modern folklore. The case received unprecedented media coverage – right from the car chase to the actual trial itself. The end result defied all expectations and created ethnic divisions, as despite a seemingly ironclad case against him, Simpson was acquitted of double homicide and walked free, despite the ridiculously damning evidence suggesting otherwise. And this is where we get to the jury.
The jury system is an integral and enshrined part in many judicial systems worldwide, notably in the Western world and especially in the United States. A jury generally consists of about 12 members, who have to listen to the arguments presented by the prosecution and the defence, along with the evidence displayed and come to a(n) (almost unanimous) decision one way or another. In theory, the idea has validity. Choosing people with no connection to the accused SHOULD render an impartial and rational verdict, based on the evidence provided by either side.
This is far from the truth, especially in high-profile, racially-charged cases with a lot of media attention, which the OJ Simpson trial was (I cannot recommend the TV show American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson enough, to see firsthand the media frenzy which accompanied this case). Everything was discussed and dissected at length – from the racist past of the detective who originally discovered the murder scene to the disgusting, completely unrelated sexism which was targeted at the lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. Even though the jury is to be kept in complete seclusion for the duration of the trial, it is inevitable that certain narratives will seep through the cracks and predispose the members one way or another. This is true in all walks of life, but it becomes critical in a situation where you are deciding the potential innocence/guilt of a person. In the Simpson case, the defence team spun a story, led by their charismatic attorney Johnnie Cochran, which didn’t serve to acquit Simpson: the goal was to sell a narrative to the jury better (read: more entertaining) than the prosecution, so as to put enough doubt in their minds. Effectively, they told the jury that we’re not saying OJ Simpson didn’t do it; we’re saying that someone else might also have done it. That, in my opinion, is a gross miscarriage and manipulation of justice.
And this is before addressing the crux of the issue regarding jury trials: you are entrusting the fate and in many cases, the life of a person in the hands of a handful of random, average citizens, with little to no legal knowledge and who are susceptible to forceful rhetoric. To illustrate the problem, think of a sporting analogy: in cricket, the fielding team appeals for a run-out to the on-field umpire. If the umpire is certain of the decision, he will give it himself; if not, he refers to the third umpire, who has the advantage of multiple replays. The jury system is like the third umpire delegating the task to handpicked members of the crowd watching the game, who may or may not have cricketing law knowledge and if they do, it will certainly be less than the two umpires. Hence, the batsman’s fate is pretty much a flip of a coin, much like the defendant in a jury-based trial. In a study by Northwestern University, juries are likely to come to the wrong decision in at least 1 in 8 cases. Over 10% of defendants are wrongly acquitted or convicted.
The threat of jury manipulation, by the media or otherwise, is just as big in a case involving an ordinary citizen and isn’t exclusive to that involving an established celebrity. The K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra case is an example of this (incidentally, the upcoming Bollywood film Rustom is based on this particular case). Nanavati, a commander in the Indian Navy, was accused of killing his wife’s lover in cold blood. The case against him was so strong as to be pretty much a certainty; so much so, that when the jury pronounced him not guilty by an 8-1 majority, the government abolished jury trials in India thereafter. A bench re-trial, consisting of a judge as the final authority, found him guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The reason for the jury being swayed? A lot of it, admittedly, had to do with the jury being misled by the judge on certain key legal terminology, such as burden of proof being on Nanavati and not the prosecution. However, the impact that the media had on the trial cannot be ignored. Receiving the adulation and patriotic fervor that is typically reserved only for armed forces’ personnel, influential people in the media embarked on a propaganda spree, painting Nanavati as a committed, middle-class naval officer, compared to the sleazy, Casanova image of the victim (i.e. Indian culture). Throw enough darts at a board and one is bound to stick: the jury was undoubtedly exposed to this indoctrination and pronounced Nanavati not guilty, thus leading to the abolition of jury trials in India and changing the legal system forever.
The fact that a potentially life-changing decision of (not) guilty is in the hands of a dozen or so random, average individuals, with rudimentary legal knowledge and riddled with inherent biases and discriminations, is a terrifying prospect (this is, of course, not to say that the same problems aren’t present within judges, but countless years of legal training should have given these officers an ability to distinguish their bias from the cold, hard evidence in front of them). The two cases mentioned here are two of the more well-known instances of jury failure: who’s to say that there aren’t gross injustices taking place to ordinary citizens worldwide, in countries far less developed and more prone to corruption than the USA and India? The brutal truth is that Simpson and Nanavati (initially) got away with murder because their characteristics were those that appealed favorably to the jury; Simpson because he was black and successful, in an era where African-Americans faced mass atrocities at the hands of the police; Nanavati because he represented supposedly ‘good’ values and served his country. Whether or not they actually committed their alleged crimes is far down on the checklist. If you can’t be certain that you will receive the deserved verdict from the judicial system, the pillar on which democracy is sustained, then what can you be certain of?
Article by Mihir Choughule.