Ted Stevens

The 12-man jury system goes back to the twelfth century under King Henry II and was confirmed in the Magna Carta (1215).   It’s even possible it goes back further to Anglo-Saxon England, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066.

Nobody has ever suggested that it is a perfect system but it beats every alternative known to man. It must have been quite reassuring to hundreds of thousands of people down through the centuries to know that, when falsely accused, they had to be judged by “twelve of their peers.”

So we should all be concerned that the jury system is seriously threatened.

I first noticed this forty years ago in a former British colony in Africa.   The English Common Law was exported to British colonies, including the thirteen American colonies that eventually became the United States.

But the system, like democracy itself, may not be culturally exportable. The problem I noticed in Africa was that juries were greatly influenced by ethnicity. Put another way, if a member of a certain tribe was on trial, members of other tribes would automatically find him guilty without due consideration of the evidence.

This obvious prejudice kept us out of court in 1982 following a serious collision between our Land Rover and a bus. Passengers on the bus testified that the driver was drunk and dancing at the wheel at the time of the crash. But, we were advised that going to trial would be pointless as he was from the area where the accident took place. No jury from that area would convict him.

I don’t remember when it was but I do remember the time in England when it was decided that a jury could convict a murderer with a 10-2 vote, instead of the former 12. My immediate thought was why change a system that has served the country well for over eight centuries?

Grand juries go back to 1166. Again, Henry II was the monarch behind the idea.   A Grand Jury was not limited to 12 men. It could be as many as 23 men, hence the term “grand” as against a regular trial jury. Today, the US is one of the few countries that retain the grand jury system. It is used to determine whether or not a person should be sent for a trial, in effect to determine if anything criminal has taken place.

The grand jury that sat in Ferguson, Missouri, was composed of twelve people, three of them black. They sat for months hearing testimony from a number of people, including the accused police officer, Darren Wilson. Their determination was that there was no case to send Wilson to trial. Rioting erupted immediately and has continued sporadically since.   As in Africa, ethnicity could make it impossible to hold a trial.

Different people reading this will have differing views on the decision of the grand jury.   The concern I want to express is about the system itself.

If a grand jury or a trial jury cannot meet without taking into account the mob outside, then the jury system will fall apart. For centuries, respect for the jury system was such that when a decision was made, the public supported that decision, even if they did not agree with it. The system itself was highly respected.

If mob rule threatens the jury system, what will replace it?   Juries are composed of regular people selected at random.   Those countries that do not have a jury system use judges appointed by government with no jury. Is that what we want?

The prophet Isaiah wrote of a time in ancient Judah when there was no justice and seemingly no concept of it. We are in a similar time today. “No one calls for justice, Nor does any plead for truth.” (Isa 59:4) “The way of peace they have not known, And there is no justice in their ways. (v.8)”

I should add that Ferguson is not the only threat to our legal system.

Bill Cosby illustrates another problem. He has been accused of sexual assault by a number of different women. Without a trial, the media and the population at large seem to have found the man guilty, thereby effectively ending his career.

Both situations threaten our legal system. Is this really what we want?


  1. Very valid points. The rule of law seems to not be respected anymore, which lends itself to utter chaos eventually. What I find most ironic is Black people were tried and hung by “lynch mobs” without so much as a real trial, judge or jury. In this case the lynch mobs would like to deny officer Wilson his rights and hang him for what his peers say was a justifiable homicide. Not sure where we go from here.

  2. Melvin, some well thought out and salient points. An additional reason that in the UK and subsequently in the USA a jury of 12 people was as is normally so effective is that it is very hard to corrupt 12 people all at the same time. Many have tried to participate in “jury tampering” however due to the nature and number of the group it is almost impossible to corrupt and or get at every single member of the jury, hence the safety in numbers. Many countries have a system of 3 judges, Germany, Mexico and Israel are good examples of this. It would be accepted that the “Judges” would have a better concept and understanding of the law, however it is easier to coerce 3 than 12. I for one am happy that the system still exists. Of course rarely in today’s modern world are people really tried by their “peers” but rather by people that have no idea about the “accused” background or life etc. The concept is to promote impartiality, however it can also lead to another word beginning with “i” and that is ignorance as the chose jury is not really one of the individuals “peers” any more.

  3. I especially agree that the media are as much to blame for the riots as the verdict. If they would just report the news and then let it go, and not televise these people acting badly, it would die down a lot quicker. They are performing for the camera! Many just want to see themselves on the news. I agree the public has the right to know what’s going on, but does it have to go on for weeks?

  4. Add to all of this the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson . . . rabble rousers if ever rabble rousers existed . . . and Ferguson is what you get! Then, add a biased media and you are likely to get precious few facts.

    Closed juries are forced to consider ONLY the evidence presented. They, ideally, are not influenced by public opinion which, very often, is not formed based on FACTS but is nearly all based on emotion.

    Racial prejudice is a fact of life in this country, if not in most, if not all, of the world! Case after case can be cited of black-on-white crime, but those cases get little, if any, national media attention. We seem to have some perverse need to atone for the sin of our ancestors, i.e. slavery, by being more “sensitive” to black victims of crime. Come on, people!! Crime is crime! Facts are facts! If juries are composed of reasonably intelligent people, those people, when presented with the facts of a case (I know! People, i.e. witnesses, lie, but that is their problem) should be able to render a just verdict, based on the “facts” with which they are presented.

    Then there is the case of Bill Cosby. You could add to that the case of Clarence Thomas. Big, bad men supposedly assaulting poor, defenseless women. We, naturally, side with the women, right? Even when we know neither the people involved or ANY facts. As if women . . . especially years after the “fact” . . . would certainly not lie in order to get their “fifteen minutes of fame,” not to mention all the sympathy, and on a national scale!! It’s all a case of siding with the supposed “underdog.” Besides, we all know that men are ruled by hormones! Of course they’re guilty! It is all based on emotion and not on facts.

    When it comes to Bill Cosby, my gut reaction would be that he is, most likely, not guilty of that with which he has been accused. He is an icon of American, family values. And I like his humor! Have since I was a teenager. BUT, that is only my opinion, having no “facts” upon which to base any other opinion. A jury of his peers (now, what would such a jury look like? All men? Other actors or comedians? All black?) would be presented with “facts.” Those women who were bold enough to make such accusations would be faced with appearing at a public trial and would be required to make those accusations, along with detailed testimony, UNDER OATH. That just might mean something to some of those women. If they have been lying, they might just change their tune!

    I think that there are a fair number of people in this country, evidenced by the events in Ferguson, who wouldn’t mind mob rule. Let some blacks lynch some whites for a change! And get away with it! Reasonable people CANNOT let that happen!

    Our government is not perfect. Our jury system is not perfect. Blame it all on the human heart. But, as you pointed out, nothing better has ever been devised.

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