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Demosthenes's avatar

Does the inability to find "blank slate" jurors illustrate a flaw in the trial-by-jury system?

Asked by Demosthenes (12881points) 1 month ago

I just came across an article about the difficulty of finding “blank slate” jurors for the Ahmaud Arbery case.

But the whole concept to me is strange. First of all, humans are not “blank slates”. Everyone has biases and opinions. The fact that we allow people to be on juries if they only state that they’re open-minded indicates the extent to which we have to take people at their word, which is no guarantee of a fair trial. Even a determination to be impartial can’t supersede one’s subconscious bias. Secondly, in a world of social media and the internet, the publicity surrounding these cases has already proliferated beyond the immediate locale by the time jury selection begins. A “change of venue” is not even a guarantee that the jury will be more impartial if the case has attracted national attention and people know about the case from the internet. Even worse in a racially-charged case like Ahmaud Arbery, where your opinion on the case is part of your political identity.

Short of a complete black-out of information on a case that has the potential to go to trial, I don’t see how you get around this problem.

What would you suggest for making sure that jurors are more “impartial”? Is there an alternative system that might work better?

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13 Answers

Tropical_Willie's avatar

You loaded the question with ” inability”, it is difficult because people know the defendants and the victim !

Demosthenes's avatar

@Tropical_Willie Is that it, though? I think this goes beyond the circle of people who know the victim and the defendant. Yes, that is a factor in having a trial in the locale where the crime occurred, but we don’t simply require that jurors not know the victim or defendant, we require them to be impartial. And that is going to be more difficult with the amount of publicity these cases get and how politically charged they often are.

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t know, but I agree with you.

Those rules were made long before everyone could access national and international news within seconds after—and even during—an event. Never mind that the internet has drowned out what’s left of responsible journalism and vetted publishing.

We need new rules and safeguards, but it may already be too late to halt that runaway train.

Bias in an audience is inevitable, but bringing your own bias to what you hear and read is one thing, and having the mass of information come in riddled with ignorance, political slant, agendas, corruption, and greed is another. Whether traditional journalistic ethics and practices can hold out against them is anything but sure.

I believe that loss of standards for quality of public information and loss of confidence in information channels will be the death of us as well as of our society and nation, and for any other that allows its communications media to be hijacked by dust devils.

The birth of social media and even of the internet itself is not the root of that. It’s putting computing power and open communications power in the hands of everyone, with no safeguards in place or possible.

Zaku's avatar

I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of “Ahmaud Arbery”, and I have no intention of looking up WTF that is.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Zaku He was a black man who was shot and killed by two white men who claimed that he was trespassing. The story generated controversy initially because it took a long time for the killers to be arrested or charged. Now they have and it’s going to trial. This case didn’t get as much attention as George Floyd, but I saw it all over the internet and on mainstream news.

@Jeruba I believe that loss of standards for quality of public information and loss of confidence in information channels will be the death of us as well as of our society and nation

I can’t say I disagree with that.

Jeruba's avatar

@Demosthenes, add the fact that television (and to some extent radio) had already long since eroded our collective ability to resist powerful imagery and retain the presence of mind to question what we saw and heard.

We should never forget the lessons of the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(1938_radio_drama)

Our susceptibility to misleading and deceptive media (and especially the internet) has only increased over time, with agents of ill will abusing other people’s credulity in order to manipulate them, and people of little judgment or discriminating frame of reference all too ready to eat it up, especially if it excited them.

flutherother's avatar

The question is how can you ensure that people aren’t racist. It isn’t just jurors, even the District Attorney in the case has been charged with obstructing the arrest of the killers. The flaw isn’t in the trial-by-jury system it is in society at large and all you can do is try to ensure that the worst of the bigots and those with a connection to the people involved in the case aren’t on the jury.

JLoon's avatar

Good question – up to a point. The problem arises when you mix law with science and psychology. There are big differences, and they matter.

The average person reacts to trial procedures in high profile cases more or less the way you are: “How can any of these rules make sure something doesn’t go wrong?” The short answer is, they can’t. There are no guarantees. That’s why the system allows for appeals, review, and reconsideration. But when lawyers, judges, and juries all understand their responsibilities and are guided by facts & reason they can and do make fair decisions.

And fairness is always the key to justice. But it’s a human process that always involves our individual ability to see and weigh the difference between shades of right and wrong. Because crime and negligence grow out of that same human experience, law can’t really be a science and a trial is not a mathematical equation. You don’t just plug in data and automatically process the result.

So – There is no requirement under Federal Rules of Procedure or Georgia Uniform Court Rules that potential jurors should be chosen as “blank slates”. The term honestly doesn’t make sense in the context of real jury selection, but it’s the language that news media and other outside observers often use to describe what they think they see. In reality someone sitting on a jury with a blank slate in their head is the last thing prosecutors and defense attorneys want, because that blankness usually indicates ignorance and inability to process facts. The aim is to select competent and fair minded jurors capable of putting prior assumptions aside so they can be informed by the facts presented in court. The prosecution and defense question every potential juror carefully to discover individual biases that prevent that kind of impartiality, and throw out those with the most obvious prejudice.

It’s the best we can do, and it’s not actually a “flaw” as your question suggests. Because the whole idea with juries is that as “peers” deciding the guilt or innocence of someone like themselves they represent the human community with the most legitmate stake in the outcome. It’s what we have because it’s who we are.

Jeruba's avatar

Good, thoughtful response, @JLoon. GA.

tinyfaery's avatar

Jury consultants fetch a high price to determine who would be an asset to their cases. They use all types of techniques to determine the likelihood of someone voting in favor of their client. They exist because of the inability to choose a truly impartial jury.

I think it’s inherent bias that is the biggest problem, and not so much overt prejudice. Though it can be both.

jca2's avatar

@Zaku: Add to the details about the case, the fact that at the time Arbery was killed by the white men, he was jogging through a neighborhood. The men pursued him with rifles in a pickup truck. They acosted him and he defended himself, and they shot him, broad daylight.

Zaku's avatar

Well, that’s terrible, and I’m surprised I didn’t know about it before…

Looks like we just lost one more person that didn’t know about it, but the reason I spoke up was to mention that I was an example of someone who’d never heard of it. I expect there are others.

On the other hand, I’m still not about to do detailed research. I expect I could still be an impartial juror, because I don’t know the details of the case from the media, and I would not go into a trial thinking the police surely had the people who did it, or knowing what the evidence was, etc.

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