How to Fix Jury Duty in Philadelphia

Potential jurors should be tested and trained first

A friend of mine recently was called for jury duty here in Philadelphia and arrived at the Criminal Justice Center (CJC) at 8:30 a.m. as required. But instead of spending about a week or two as a juror listening to edge-of-seat testimony by impassioned witnesses about a gruesome killing in a drug house and riveting arguments by the likes of a William Jennings Bryan prosecutor and a Johnnie Cochran defense lawyer in a trial-of-the-century murder case, she never left the first floor Jury Assembly Room. In fact, she was dismissed at 11:30 a.m. without even seeing a courtroom. But it wasn’t just her. A fellow potential juror sitting next to her said, “Any defendant whose courtroom we would have been sent to after waiting around down here for three hours is lucky because that long wait made me wanna lynch somebody.” Not only is such a sentiment sad, it’s also dangerous and not uncommon either.

My friend and the disgruntled gentleman seated with her are among the approximately 400 “veniremen” (or venire persons) daily—and the 100,000 yearly—in Philadelphia who are randomly selected by the Jury Selection Commission’s computer from a combined list of the city’s registered voters and adult licensed drivers.

Where did all of this jury stuff come from to begin with? Well, many would be surprised, shocked even, to learn that the English-based American concept of jury trials was created in North Africa by Muslims. In fact, we use 12 jurors in the U.S. because of the Shiite “Twelvers,” which is derived from the Shia belief in the historic 12 divinely ordained imams.

Clearly, today’s jury system has positives and negatives. Juries are an effective and much-needed check on government power. Secret deliberations render them unsusceptible to political and otherwise outside pressure. Juries are direct democracy in action. Yet juries also have unchecked, hence nullification-type and lynch mob-type, power. Moreover, jury members are untrained and ignorant regarding fundamental concepts of presumption of innocence, burden of proof, and reasonable doubt, and accordingly are prone to find guilty nearly everyone who’s been merely arrested. Because deliberation is secret, juries issue no written, reviewable reports. And they engage in amateur, i.e., fundamentally flawed, so-called justice.

So what’s the answer? Do we get rid of juries or do we try to repair them? I say the latter. After military service and voting, there’s no greater civic obligation in a civilized society than jury duty. Here’s how we try to repair juries.

We keep the same process of contacting jurors but we also advertise for applicants on TV, radio and in newspapers and magazines just like we do for cars, toothpaste and Viagra. We then give a very basic GED level test to weed out the kind of people who shouldn’t be permitted to cross multi-lane streets alone. Those who pass the exam with a score of at least 70 then go through a one-week training session that includes information about fundamental criminal (or civil) law principles. At the conclusion of the course, a mock trial is held, followed by a multiple choice quiz. Those who score at least 75 will become real jurors. And they will be handsomely compensated for their service. When empanelled, juries absolutely must be racially, religiously, gender, and generationally diverse.

Yes, I know this will take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. But what if you, for example, were facing life in prison or were exposed to fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a crime you didn’t commit? Or what if you, for example, had a child murdered and wanted the right defendant convicted or was owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution from a thug whose violent crime caused you long-term uninsured hospitalization?

Am I right, and is this the perfect solution? Or am I wrong, and is this the dumbest idea in the history of humankind? You be judge. I mean the jury.