Jury Duty

In a comment to the post “Not Guilty“, Anirudh wrote:

Would you be in favor of bringing the jury system back to the Indian courts?

Are you familiar with the case of Nanavati vs. The State of Maharashtra? Even though the case was an open and shut case, the jury declared Commander Nanavati as not guilty. Wouldn’t that have been a miscarriage of justice? As in this case, is the jury not likely to be influenced or misled by popular media?

Why do you say a jury trial is “the least flawed compromise”?

In the US, citizens and states have a right to trial by jury. I like the fact that the defending party can exercise the option to be tried by a jury of peers but is not forced to do so. Do juries make mistakes occasionally? Yes, but so can judges.

In the US, juries are very powerful. They can decide that the defendant is not guilty even though he clearly is in breach of the law. The jury, in effect, can decide that the law is bad and should be disregarded. This is called jury nullification. Here’s a bit from a very informative piece at lawyers.com.

Arguments in Favor of Jury Nullification

Proponents of jury nullification point out that a trial by our peers is guaranteed precisely because we want decisions to be leavened by the common sense of laypeople. In a way, they argue, the jury is the conscience of society, and their job is not only to decide whether the defendant did the acts charged, but whether he should be condemned and punished for it. The jury protects us from immoral or socially undesirable results.

Arguments Against Jury Nullification

The strongest argument against nullification points to the core principle of our judicial system: We are a nation of laws, not men (individuals); that’s why we have elected officials to determine the law (if we don’t like the law, we replace the legislators with those who will legislate differently). Allowing juries to bypass this system can result in the unfortunate examples noted above. In addition, we ask jurors to take an oath to follow the law; how is embracing nullification consistent with this promise?

I am in favor of ignoring bad laws if they cannot be abolished. As the old English adage goes, “the law is an ass” — like a donkey, it is stupid and stubborn. It should be ignored if what it requires is beyond reason.

Coming back to juries. In the US, the jury has to reach a unanimous verdict. If they cannot all agree on the verdict, it results in a “hung jury” and the case ends in a “mistrial.” Go watch the 1957 movie “12 Angry Men.” (Over here it’s free with ads on YouTube.) I love that movie. Makes you appreciate the way a good jury system works.

To Anirudh’s question, my answer is that trial by jury should be an option. The jury found Nanavati not guilty. They were following community standards — which said that the husband was justified in murdering the wife’s lover. That would have been a certain crime in a civilized society. The whole case is fascinating.

I approve of trial by jury. The downside is that it will add costs in terms of time and money. However the option should be there. The whole Indian judicial system needs reform. Perhaps 99 percent of all the laws should be scrapped. But that would be sensible and in most poor countries, sensible appears to be prohibited.

Juries are all fine and good. Until one gets summoned for jury duty. It’s a big pain in the derriere. As it happens, I got summoned for jury duty on Jan 19th. The next step is to show up at jury selection and hope to get rejected. As has been observed, the jury ends up being a bunch of people who were too stupid not to get themselves disqualified as jurors.

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “Jury Duty”

  1. Yes, “the fact that the defending party can exercise the option to be tried by a jury of peers but is not forced to do so” definitely makes things better.

    Here is why I am not so bullish about jury trials; the jury usually tends towards community standards of morality, and I believe community standards of morality are usually hogwash. The whole point of a republican political philosophy or constitutionalism is, I repose faith in the constitution( which hopefully enshrines enlightened principles and protects individual liberties) rather than the moral judgment of random jury members.

    Here is a hypothetical scenario( not so hypothetical given what recently transpired in Punjab – https://theprint.in/india/who-were-the-men-lynched-for-sacrilege-in-amritsar-kapurthala-no-clue-yet-say-police/784802/) – Say a man performs an act of blasphemy or sacrilege and gets lynched by the devout members of the religion. The people who committed the crime are brought to court, and they opt for a trial by jury. The jury members, disregarding the law and what the constitution assures, believe blasphemy is a crime and declare the accused innocent; this is a clear miscarriage of justice. When criminals go scot-free, they become more brazen the next time. Instead of a jury, if a legally trained judge, exposed to a broader array of legal literature, presides over the matter, he is more likely to be discerning.

    Of course, like in the Nanavati case, the court might dismiss the jury’s verdict and refer the matter to a higher court. ( Even here, I am not sure under what conditions a jury’s verdict can be dismissed)

    Yes, I have watched the movie 12 Angry Men multiple times; it is one of my favorite movies. And you are right; it makes one appreciate how a good jury system could work. But sometimes, I dread to think what the fate of the defendant would have been and what the jury would have done if not for Davis, the Juror 8( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/12_Angry_Men_(1957_film)#Cast)

    Regarding the jury system costing more money and time, I don’t think that can be a valid argument. Money and time cannot be a concern if the alternative is a miscarriage of justice.


    1. –disregarding the law and what the constitution assures, believe blasphemy is a crime and declare the accused innocent; this is a clear miscarriage of justice.

      Constitution of India makes it illegal to engage in blasphemy. Note that, after the incident of that murder the police investigated not the murder but the reason why the victim was engaging in sacrilege in first place. So the priorities of Indian law are set in that fashion.

      Also, there is a jury selection process. Both the prosecutor and defendant has to agree to the set of people. In the above case very likely the court would not allow a practicing Sikh to be on the jury.

      Eventually it boils down to this. Will I preferred to be judged by my peers or some babu in black robes sitting on his high horse ? I will take my chances with the jury any day.


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