As I write this week’s column, I am busily preparing for a jury trial in Hancock County Common Pleas Court which is located in beautiful, downtown Findlay, Ohio. I’ve lost track of exactly how many jury trials I’ve participated in during my more than three decades as a practicing attorney, but I can say the outcomes have provided most of the highlights and lowlights of my career—and truth be told–I remember a lot more about my losses than my wins.
Why does the angst associated with guilty verdicts last longer than the euphoria that accompanies acquittals? Because the outcome of each trial is in many ways dependent on the defense attorney’s experience, talent, intelligence, rhetorical skill, knowledge, and yes—acting ability. We select the jury, we carefully study and prepare to nullify the evidence and undermine—if not destroy—the credibility of the witnesses presented by the prosecution, we build our defense and craft a compelling narrative that will convince the jurors that our client is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and then we write and deliver a captivating closing argument that will enthrall the jury and win the case.
What could possibly go wrong?
Obviously, lots, which is I and many of my colleagues sit straight up in bed at 3:00 AM and reexamine every facet of a case that ended in a guilty verdict. Did I miss something in jury selectin? Was I slow to respond to an unexpected piece of evidence or testimony. Did my exhibits fall flat. Did I fail to connect with jurors? I’ll often replay every minute of a trial in my head to identify what I did right and what I could have done better.
While the process is agonizing it is also extremely valuable because practical experience is an indispensable asset to a trial lawyer. That is because although they teach basic trial tactics and the rules of civil and criminal procedure in law school, there is no substitute for preparing and trying cases on behalf of clients who place their freedom, their future, and in some instances their very lives in your hands. Take it from me, courtrooms, not classrooms, are the only places attorneys like me learn to ply our trade.
Yet, despite all the preparation and trepidation involved, I love jury trials and the jury system. And I’m not alone. Throughout history the jury system has been a foundational pillar of civilized societies. Nearly 3,000 years ago bodies known as dikastai composed of as many 1,501 citizens rendered verdicts by majority rule in cases ranging from mundane matters to those involving death, exile, and seizure of property.
The Roman Empire also featured a precursor of modern juries in which capital trials were conducted before thousands of citizens. Interestingly, high government officials and their relatives, people who had been convicted of felonies, gladiators for hire, and men younger than 30 or older than 60 were barred from jury service.
The system continued to evolve though the centuries and began to resemble the process and configuration that exists today in the late 900s when King Etheired the Unready of England instituted the Wantage Code which required the 12 leading minor nobles in small districts to investigate crimes. These juries differed from modern ones because there were no trials—the jurors were responsible for investigating cases and rendering verdicts on their own.
Juries took a major leap forward during the Reign of King Henry II in the mid 1100s. He established both a process in which a jury of 12 free men arbitrated property disputes and formed grand juries whose members were to report any crimes they knew of to a judge who would then conduct a trial by ordeal. As you might imagine, the guilt or innocence of the defendant was determined by subjecting them to one or more painful experiences. This system was based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle on their behalf. Trial by ordeal fell out of favor when Pope Innocent III prohibited priests from participating in trials by fire and water. I can say this, if they were still around, I would have found a different occupation.
The right to trial by jury, along with the entirety of British Common Law, continued to advance and served as both one of reasons for the American Revolution and the basis for the judicial system America’s Founding Fathers enshrined in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to our Constitution. Thomas Jefferson specifically cited King George’s decision to deprive colonists of trial by jury as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence and John Adams wrote that “…representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hogs.”
I am 100 percent in agreement with Adams, which explains why I believe we all have a civic duty to vote and serve as jurors—and why I refuse to help anyone skirt jury duty. Under Ohio there are very few reasons people may be exempt from service and even those who qualify must be excused by a judge. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve received a jury summons and duly reported for duty. Unfortunately, I was excused and denied the opportunity to get a very close look at the dynamic that takes place during deliberations. That is an experience I would have relished and used for the remainder of my career.