The Phone and the Jury

The phone camera feeds people’s passion for justice. We capture all sorts of crimes with our phones. A few minutes of wobbly video footage can make you feel like a first-hand witness to a traffic accident, an assault, or a murder. But the footage raises questions. Does a video really make you a witness? Should witnesses decide who is guilty? Is justice a demand for truth or satisfaction?

These problems are not new. In the past, you could always get information about an event that you didn’t see and feel like you were there. Gossip, for instance, has always felt like “inside information,” as if you were a step ahead of everybody else. But gossip is just the original fake news.

In the 1700s, newspapers and pamphlets were a cutting-edge medium — cheap to produce and relatively easy to distribute. In 1770, Paul Revere made an etching of the Boston Massacre, the killing of five colonists by British soldiers. The etching was printed three weeks after the killings with a poem that lamented the “guiltless gore” on the street. The image’s depiction of British cruelty against helpless citizens included a dog, the symbol of loyalty, staring out at the viewer as if to ask, “Whose side are you on?”

It seemed like you were there — three weeks after the event.

In the 1980s, the camcorder enabled people to record video and sound on tape. When Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in 1991, George Holliday filmed the incident with his camcorder. He took the tape to the LAPD two days later, with no response, and then to KTLA, the TV station that first broadcast the video. It was soon viewed nationally. Again, it was like you were there — only days after the event.

Today, videos showing incidents like killing of George Floyd can be viewed by millions in minutes.

But the way to find justice in democracies is to admit that we know less than we think. We admit that videos do not make us witnesses. A video is just part of the evidence. Furthermore, even genuine witnesses do not decide anyone’s guilt. They merely state what they saw and heard.

To find justice, we bring a defendant before an institution called a jury — twelve neutral citizens without any special training. Those twelve people are given specific laws that the defendant is accused of breaking, the standards of proof required to find guilt, and the evidence that he is guilty. There are three assumptions behind this institution:

First, the defendant has dignity — personal value that is not diminished just because he or she is accused of a crime. That dignity must be respected, even if the person is guilty. The jury is a protective wall between the accuser and the defendant.

Second, there are facts about what the defendant did or did not do. Those facts can be known and weighed rationally. The jury’s reasoning is strengthened by its neutrality.

Third, the personal competition between prosecution and defense lawyers will reveal which case is strongest to the jury. The process takes human perspective into consideration, not just cold facts. The jury must be neutral, but not robotic.

The twelve people are to disregard what politicians say, what protesters shout, what journalists think. They do not decide whether the defendant is innocent — too vague a word for the law. They only decide whether this individual defendant is guilty of this specific crime.

Juries are unpredictable. They make unpopular decisions, especially in cases where there are millions of “witnesses.” The lawyer who defended the British soldiers after the Boston massacre was John Adams, who later helped lead the Revolution and became our second president. The jury declared them “not guilty,” enraging many colonists. The police officers who beat Rodney King were also acquitted — and the jury’s decision provoked riots in L.A. in 1992.

Juries make errors and even deliver unjust verdicts. No one ever claimed the institution was perfect, or even completely rational. It is all too human — which is why verdicts can be appealed to higher courts.

But if you weaken juries, you give political leaders the power to punish their enemies at will. In the 1930s, Soviet ruler Josef Stalin ran show trials of innocent people and then had them shot. Would you want to be at the mercy of a politician? Conversely, weak juries empower mobs of people who call themselves “witnesses” to satisfy their passions regardless of the truth. Would you want to be at the mercy of Twitter?

If justice becomes a demand for satisfaction regardless of the truth, then a defendant becomes a symbol, a message, an example to the masses — not a person. And that defendant could be you.

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