Law and Literature: Improving the American Jury System
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A Jury of Your Peers
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According to the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, in all criminal matters, "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." The right to an "impartial jury" implies that the accused has the right to be judged by a jury consisting of those who understand the individual’s situation politically, socially, and economically, and whose beliefs are untainted by the prevailing social norms. In other words, the accused is guaranteed the right to be tried by a jury of his or her peers.

In A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell’s emphasis on the social conditions of women in society suggests that justice can only be served when you are judged by a jury of your own peers. Mrs. Wright is accused of murdering her husband. She is described as a woman who was once jovial and full of personality. However, as a result of her marriage to a man who was oppressive and controlling, she becomes completely devoid of life. Although this point is never fully expressed, serious undertones of spousal abuse exist in this story, which, at the time, was socially acceptable behavior. Women were expected to be obedient to their husbands. During this era, no man would feel sympathetic towards a woman who killed her husband because of the physical and emotional abuse she experienced in her life.

Here, justice is served only by the other women in the story acting as her unofficial jury. They debate throughout the course of the story as to whether or not her actions were justified, and they slowly begin to develop arguments in Mrs. Wright’s defense. Her "jury" begins altering and concealing the evidence in her home that would implicate her guilt. These women slowly move from being a jury of her peers to her accomplices throughout the progression of the story. To act otherwise would result in a conviction for a woman who had suffered abuse on many levels.

The bottom line is that in order to find the truth, one must be judged by individuals who are similarly situated, and who have had similar life experiences. One cannot fully comprehend the actions of the accused unless one has been subjected to a life that parallel’s the life of the accused in some way.

Another example of a situation where justice may have been served if the accused had been at the mercy of an impartial jury of his peers is the Tom Robinson trial in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson is subjected to the mercy of an all-white jury. During this era, blacks were seated in a separate colored balcony, and they did not participate as fact-finders. Due to the social norms of the times, black people who were accused of crimes were often convicted, even when the evidence overwhelmingly indicated that they were innocent. Here, a truly innocent man is convicted by an all-white jury, a jury not comprised of his peers.

Had Tom Robinson been at the mercy of his peers, of African-American individuals from the Deep South who were similarly situated and had similar life experiences, the odds would have been more in his favor.

Truth cannot be found, and justice cannot be served, unless those who are expected to decide the fate of the accused are impartial. A system should be installed that would ensure that those who are called for jury duty would be from similar areas of the community, with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. This is not to say that such a system would result in absolute justice. In fact, it could have the opposite effect in that a jury of your peers may acquit you, despite having knowledge of your guilt. This just goes to show you that there will always be flaws in the legal system, and it is not in any way perfect. However, each individual who faces the threat of losing his or her freedom, or perhaps even life itself, should be afforded the constitutional guarantee of a jury of his or her peers.

Next, we’ll look at some other procedural reforms that would improve the jury system in the United States.