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Judging the Jury in the Simpson Case : Justice: Finding a dozen prospective jurors who are unaware of the details shouldn't be the goal.

September 26, 1994|RICHARD STACK | Richard Stack is an assistant professor in the School of Communication of the American University in Washington.

Can O.J. Simpson get a fair trial? Can a dozen unaware citizens be found to serve on his jury?

The question of seating unaware jurors is misleading. Unaware is not synonymous with impartial , and the Constitution speaks of impartial juries, not jurors.

The belief that juries were essential protectors of liberty culminated in the adoption of the Sixth Amendment, which 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."

Preserving this right does not depend on locating jurors with no opinions or biases, but rather on the dynamics of interaction among 12 community members, and their knowledge and background.

The media's influence on prospective jurors is an old debate. A seminal case was the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr. Burr argued against seating any jurors who were aware of his longstanding, well-known political feud with President Thomas Jefferson. Ruling on that motion, Chief Justice John Marshall defined "impartial jury" as consisting of citizens who would fairly hear the testimony and would reach a verdict on the evidence and applicable law. (Burr was acquitted.)

In 1878, the question was whether someone aware of the facts of a case could serve as a juror. In Reynolds vs. United States, the court reasoned that every opinion a potential juror holds need not disqualify that individual from jury service.

The court, in 1961 in Irvin vs. Dowd, overturned a murder conviction for lack of an impartial jury. It established the framework through which juror bias might be shown. Some knowledge of the facts and issues alone will not necessarily render someone unfit for jury duty. The court ruled that an opinion, unless so strong that it cannot be overcome by evidence, is insufficient to disqualify a prospective juror. If "the juror can lay aside his impression . . . and render a verdict based on the evidence," the juror can serve.

In Murphy vs. Florida, a 1975 case, the court again found that qualified jurors need not be ignorant. The issue was whether the potential jurors' knowledge of the defendant's previous convictions made them ineligible. For juror prejudice to be found, the defendant must show the "actual existence" of an opinion.

The court's acceptance that jurors could be constitutionally impartial even if they had formulated opinions was underscored in the 1984 Patton vs. Yount decision. The defendant was convicted of rape and murder but his conviction was overturned when his confession was ruled invalid. A second trial also found Yount guilty. Eight of the 14 jurors impaneled said that they had at one time formed an opinion as to his guilt. It's hard to imagine a case in which bias could be more easily demonstrated. Yet the court ruled that "the relevant question is not whether the community remembers the case, but whether the jurors . . . could . . . judge impartially."

The court's rulings show that the standard for proving actual prejudice of jurors is extremely high.

Jurors are an active, vital part of the trial process. The Supreme Court has determined that for a potential juror to be considered impartial, he or she must be willing to listen to the evidence as offered at trial and then to assess the facts in light of common sense and experience. The linkage of impartial with unaware assumes that ideal jurors are ignorant.

In reality, the legal system benefits from juries composed of informed citizens.

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