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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion, offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

June 05, 1996

Today's question: A state appeals court has overturned the pandering conviction of Heidi Fleiss after finding that the jury traded guilty votes on the pandering charges in exchange for not-guilty votes on a narcotics-related charge. In doing so, jurors hoped to avoid a deadlock--and to satisfy some jurors who wanted to minimize Fleiss' punishment. The appeals court called the jury's action a farce. But was it morally defensible?

Richard J. Mouw

President, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena

A juror is obligated to decide whether a defendant is guilty of a specific offense in the light of the available evidence. To cast a vote on a different basis--for example, by vote-trading on multiple charges to ensure a specific punishment--is a violation of duty. Our jury system presupposes the capacity for civil dialogue among citizens who are committed to a common good. This system is greatly endangered these days, as the courtroom increasingly functions as a highly visible arena for playing out the moral, racial and gender conflicts in our larger society. Until we learn how to remedy our larger social ills, the courtroom will continue to mirror our maladies.

Sharon Presley

Executive director, Resources for Independent Living, Oakland

Moral and legal precedents for juries voting their consciences already exist. In many states, juries have the legal right to determine law, not just guilt or innocence, though few judges inform them of this. Is this "mob" rule? Should "law" be only the province of an elite corps of judges and lawyers? Not easy questions. Consequences of this legal philosophy may be controversial, even wrong by some standards, but not a farce. Juries can be a force for social change, as repeated refusal to convict during Prohibition demonstrated. In the Fleiss case, the jury may have been "ruling" on the victimless crimes of prostitution and drug possession. Only the jurors can know their consciences.

The Rev. Ignacio Castuera

Senior pastor, Hollywood United Methodist Church

There are two morally defensible farces in the Bible that are eminently extralegal. The expression "Solomonic wisdom" is a reminder of one such farce. On the Christian side of the Bible, Jesus is at his rabbinical best in another farcical yet profoundly moral moment, finding a clever way to point out how absurd it was that a woman was caught "in the very act of adultery" when the man in the same "very act" was nowhere to be found. Legality and morality do not always coincide. In the Heidi Fleiss case a moral solution was attempted for which there is not yet legal parallel. How different was the jurors' action from the actions of lawyers who negotiate plea bargains?

Compiled by LARRY B. STAMMER, Times religion writer

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