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The Jury as Truth Finder: Fact or Fiction?

The opening night of "Twelve Angry Men" at the Hippodrome Theatre provided the School of Law with the perfect opportunity to continue its "Linking Law and the Arts" series.

Guests were invited to a pre-theater dinner and discussion at Westminster Hall Oct. 24 to hear a panel of experts weigh in on the topic: "The Jury as Truth Finder: Fact or Fiction?"

"We created the Linking Law and the Arts program when we realized the impact of the theater to better express complex social issues," said Karen Rothenberg, JD, dean of the School. "Over the past several years, we've done some wonderful programs on the death penalty, race relations, the environment, and law and film. Tonight is the next in the series of looking at issues in the criminal justice system."

Andrew Levy, JD, adjunct professor at the School, moderated the panel and noted that talking about the search for the nature of truth can, at times, be an esoteric discussion. "It's difficult to discuss a topic like this without feeling like we're back in an undergraduate philosophy seminar. But tonight we're going to look at it from a concrete legal point of view," he said.

When juries search for truth and come to a decision, often one side is unhappy with the outcome and appeals the verdict to a higher court. Deborah Eyler, JD, who is a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, explained the role of the appellate court in the legal system.

"The right to a jury is so exalted in our culture that appellate judges have to give the most deference to a jury's opinion," Eyler said. "We don't hear the cases over again-we read the trial transcripts and legal briefs. We can only weigh the sufficiency of the evidence. We can't review a jury's decision for whether they weighed the evidence correctly," noting that an appeals court only overturns a verdict if it determines that no reasonable juror could have possibly found the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

D. Graham Burnett, PhD, an associate professor at Princeton University who teaches the history of science, brought a decidedly different point of view to the panel. He also is the author of the 2001 book, A Trial By Jury, which chronicles his experience as the jury foreman on a Manhattan murder trial, and a book that the actors in the touring production of Twelve Angry Men were required to read.

"This book is an extraordinary departure from my day job--this is not about the history of science," he said. "It shows how people deliberate in the rawest form of democracy."

"I was on a second-degree murder case, and the defendant claimed the murder was in self-defense," he said. Lawyers on both sides presented a lot of information and jurors struggled to absorb and understand it all, said Burnett.

"Once we were in the jury room, the first thing I said was, 'Let's make sure we understand the charges,' and I couldn't believe that people were all over the map." After a contentious four days, they acquitted the defendant. Burnett said that he left the jury room with a "real transformation" in how he felt about the legal system and the human race.

"If you're accused of a crime-be very afraid. If you put 12 people in a room to come to a unanimous decision, just about anything can happen, and it does," he said.

Burnett dismissed the suggestion that some people be trained as professional jurors. "I think we have such a distrust of the government that we would not want people to be trained to be professional jurors. We'd rather have everyone be eligible to serve and have verdicts that don't make sense 10 percent of the time," he said.

Even so, Levy was confident in the truth-finding abilities of the trial by jury. "By and large, juries get it right. Not always, but most of the time," he concluded.

Posting Date: 10/27/2006
Contact Name: Lori Romer
Contact Phone: 410-706-0023
Contact Email: lrome001@umaryland.edu