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COLUMN LEFT/ MURRAY KEMPTON

Blind Faith in a Jury Has Its Rewards : It's impossible to know the minds of 12 ordinary people; it's elitist to presume the worst.

July 22, 1994|MURRAY KEMPTON | Murray Kempton writes a syndicated column in New York.

Discussions of the O.J. Simpson affair among the better-educated classes appear to have settled into taking it for granted that he is more than probably guilty and that he can't be convicted because one or two jurors will be too dumb to comprehend a truth that the better-educated classes are close to having already arrived at.

When we lift our assumptions to the arrogance of our assurances, we then speak of such propositions as "givens." O.J. Simpson's guilt has come close to a given and so is the prospect that his jury will collapse from its disagreements. Neither of these givens is, however, any better than an assumption. It is, or ought to be, nearly impossible to read guilt short of a trial, and it is impossible to anticipate a jury.

One of the intractable mysteries about juries is that their behavior cannot be explained in terms of their vices and virtues. They are, like the rest of us, a muddling-up of good and bad, smart and dumb; but, unlike the rest of us, their sense of a special duty commits them to be utterly inscrutable. The more years a lawyer looks at these faces, the more enduring the despair of ever safely guessing the thoughts behind them.

There have been times when I have sat through trials and been baffled enough by their verdicts for the notion to occur that Manhattan is an island where you cannot gather 12 persons together without including four who will believe just about anything. And yet the matter is far from that simple.

Linda Fairstein, a bureau chief for the Manhattan district attorney, recalls an acquaintance-rape case.

"We had seated a juror who appeared the day after the opening wearing a "Free Mike Tyson" T-shirt. If the trial assistant hadn't been a strong young woman, she would have fallen over right there; and, as it was, she went ahead without much hope. It took that jury three hours to bring in 'guilty.' "

The point may be that jurors don't know what they think either. Since they are full of opinions on subjects far from their direct observation, they come to the box loaded with prejudices; and what is truly remarkable is how often they can put all preconceptions aside.

What is almost as remarkable is that this redeeming riddance seems to come harder for the educated classes than for their presumed inferiors.

I remember once talking to a New York juror whose panel had just treated paroled killer Jack Abbott with a kindness beyond any plausible deserts. Shortly after his release, Abbott had stabbed a waiter to death in an alley. His act was murder most foul, and yet the jury found it no worse than negligible homicide.

Abbott testified that he had seen five other stabbing murders in one month near his doorstep on Fifth Street and that these horrors had unhinged the serenely evil norm of his nature.

How else, the juror asked, could you expect a man to act when he's seen things like that? He was certifying the truth of a statement that just had to be a lie. Appalling as the urban homicide rate is, how many white people in New York have seen one stabbing murder, let alone five in one month on one block?

The juror heard my demurrers politely and went away in the intact armor of his faith in the impossible. He was a college graduate, had lived in New York for six years and could still swallow whole a lie violating all experience and common sense.

It is becoming a given that black jurors cannot be trusted to believe the worst about O.J. Simpson. And yet I remember going to church the Sunday before Wayne Williams' trial for the Atlanta child murders and standing outside afterward while the ladies in the congregation unitedly affirmed his innocence. Then the jurors heard the case in their black majority, and Williams was convicted in a few hours.

And so I must trust black jurors. That, of course, is my civic duty; but experience has also taught me to wait people out, and in the interim keep my mouth shut.

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