Most of us have heard the phrase before either at some dramatic moment, in idle conversation, or from some crazed Daredevil comic fan.
“Justice is blind!”
Cliche or not commonsense would seem to dictate that it is true. Justice or at least true justice is indeed blind at very least to all forms of prejudice. Justice does not see wealth or poverty nor does its eye detect race or religion. It cannot fathom the concept of age or gender. It has no sense of our identifying features as perceived by others. Justice can only see the truth, the actual occurrence of events. Justice must be based on truth alone and applied according to actual character and behavior of the individual once his or her guilt or innocence has been determined, “Beyond the shadow of a doubt”
So important was ensuring this was applied that the founders wrote the 6th amendment. This constitutional amendment guaranteed all Americans the right to a speedy public trial, proper legal counsel, and of course an impartial jury to determine one’s innocent or guilt in court. Many mistakenly add to this a trial by a “jury of our peers” but this was a concept borrowed by the Magna Carta. What was clearly important to the founders was that those entrusted with the sacred duty of distinguishing the truth from the lies and carrying out justice was that they were impartial and free of any prejudices that may hinder honest judgment. Undeniably we all have them to some extent, and most of us are not proud of them.
Because of this, the jury selection process is often a long and tedious one. The jury must fit a number of qualifications. They cannot know the defendant personally. They cannot harbor any prejudices towards those that may possess similar traits to the defendant. (for instance, a juror cannot be racist against African Americans and judge the guilt or innocence of an African American). In order to determine if they meet these qualifications, they are asked an extensive list of questions. This can be a drawn-out process especially in high profile cases that may compel hundreds of jury interviews in order to find a truly impartial candidate.
Despite this, there are many that assert the system still carries out these prejudices and based on disproportionate prison populations and incarceration rates they may have a point.
According to the ACLU even though the use of marijuana among the white and black communities nationwide would appear to be equal between the two, African-Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for the same crime. While there are many factors at play here, we cannot ignore the role of the courtroom in this discrepancy and the potential flaw it may reveal in our justice system.
Racial bias is of course not the only prejudice one may harbor, though it is a major one. The truth is there are countless prejudices one may hold onto and will not bring them up before a judge or even be consciously aware of them. One may prejudge a person for any number of reasons:
“Look at all those tattoos and piercings, she must have committed the crime!”
“Look how overweight he is, there’s no way he didn’t steal those doughnuts”
“Those beady eyes, he looks like the serial killer type, he definitely killed that woman.”
And how can a judge determine if someone has such a prejudice that could impair their judgment? He must ask them and assume they will always answer truthfully. As I’ve explained most people are not proud of their prejudices. If asked if they were racist there are many that would only answer yes if they were trying to be absolved from jury duty, a fate many Americans have come to dread.
And what about the high profile case of a celebrity? With name recognition that big and the court of public opinion ever raging there is simply no way to find a truly impartial jury. It could be argued that justice cannot exist without the judgment of an unbiased third party. Unfortunately, this is not always possible under the current process because not all people are honest and most judges aren’t telepathic. If we are ever to rid the jury system of prejudice and thus establish true justice then, we must reform how we handle our trials and the jurors who participate in them.
Perhaps that discussion will be one for the next post.