The jury—holding power beyond that one can bear

Catherine Choi, Layout Designer

TW: Sexual Assault


In “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, Tom Robinson was put on trial for allegedly raping Mayella Ewell. Though it was evident that Robinson was innocent both to spectators and the presiding judge, he was declared guilty in a completely legal manner. Considering the time the novel is set in—when the Civil Rights Act had not yet been established—the Southern all-white jury was prone to predetermine African American defendants to be guilty before the beginning of the trial. 

The fifth amendment in the U.S. Constitution states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.” Accordingly, in the U.S., six- to twelve-member juries are selected through a process that includes disqualifying potential members from participating based on a number of factors, including displaying bias. The jury then decides on a verdict after the trial. However, this system has a lot of flaws.

For instance, in the case of Tom Robinson—despite being a fictional story—bias significantly impacted the verdict. Even though potential jurors go through a process to examine bias and filter out those who are unlikely to hold a neutral stance throughout the trial, some biases may go unnoticed or may even be unintentional. Implicit bias is “a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally, that nevertheless affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Those with a skewed perception of race, gender, religion, political orientation or ethnicity—of which even they are unaware of—may end up focusing on the evidence that is in their bias’ favor, making it hard to make a thorough decision with a neutral stance. 

Another reason that the jury system should be reevaluated is because of the tendencies and habits of the human brain. Juries are selected from various population groups at random, and a majority of people attempt to avoid serving jury duty. Legal documents are drenched with complicated jargon, making it likely for people to cherry-pick the information that is easy for them to digest rather than going through the strenuous process of thoroughly reviewing all of the evidence and paperwork that is a part of the case. This prevents the jury from having a comprehensive view of the case as a whole. In other countries that utilize the civil law system, the judge makes the decision based on the rules written in the law. Juries are nonexistent or hold no power other than as a reference. Allowing lay people with no legal knowledge nor the ability to make complicated judgments to provide a verdict may lead to misjudgment. 

Although the current U.S. jury system has its pros and cons, there are ways to make the system much more effective. For example, some countries in Europe compose the jury with people in the legal field, while others have a jury, but only use their decision as a reference rather than as definitive decision makers. 

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” two children asked their lawyer father Atticus why Mayella Ewell’s father kept threatening those involved in Robinson’s trial even though he got what he wanted. Atticus responded by saying that although the jury may have decided in his favor, Ewell was aware that the people did not believe him. As a result, Ewell was forced to try to cover his tracks and the Ewells were ostracized from their neighborhood. As illustrated by this case based on very real circumstances, people may not necessarily not care about deciding who is innocent or guilty in a court of law, but instead want to prove that their beliefs are correct. Further, it is likely that many people may make a verdict based on pathos rather than logic and facts. Having someone with zero expertise in the legal field having control of someone’s fate can lead to tragic effects, even if they are a legally selected jury.