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View From the Jury Box

March 01, 1997|JEFFREY LEVIN | Jeffrey Levin is a Los Angeles writer who has worked in politics and the arts

As chance would have it, the day after the Simpson civil trial ended, I found myself in the courtroom next to the one where the Simpson trial was held, selected as a juror in a criminal case. This trial lacked the media circus that accompanied the proceedings in the adjacent courtroom. It lasted barely a day. No press or interested parties observed the testimony. The only members of the public present were we jurors. Yet what happened in that courtroom said as much about justice as the obsessively reported Simpson case.

The case involved a burglary. The evidence was indisputable that the day after the burglary, the defendant pawned a number of items taken from the condominium where the crime occurred. The primary question of fact was whether the security guard at the condo complex was accurate when he identified the defendant as the man with two duffel bags leaving the area at the time of the crime.

As an alternate juror, I did not participate in the deliberations. Yet it was apparent how seriously this diverse and unconnected group of people took their courtroom duties.

In the countless unnoticed cases that pass through our county courthouses each year, I would guess there are a great many juries like this one that recognize the burden of having a man or woman's fate placed in their hands.

For those who would dispense with the jury system, I would ask this question: In this enormous urban sprawl of ours, how many other opportunities have we created to bring together people with different backgrounds, interests and lives to settle difficult issues involving other members of our community? The jury system integrates us by forcing us to look into the eyes of neighbors we have never seen and jointly work out justice, that critical element of a fair society.

Which brings me to my second point: justice. My fellow jurors came back with a guilty verdict. We then learned that this was a "three strikes" case. If the previous two convictions were deemed proper, the defendant could not avoid the lengthy sentence mandated by the three-strikes law.

Again the jury deliberated. It found no grounds to invalidate the past convictions. Yet in talking with several jurors afterwards, it was clear they were troubled that the defendant would be locked away for decades.

Very few of us ever serve on a criminal jury. Perhaps if those who voted for the three-strikes law had actually experienced the responsibility of determining the fate of one person, they might have better recognized, as members of my jury seemed to, that real justice cannot be a blunt instrument.

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