Here is the most significant proposal you will see in your life for how to greatly improve justice in our gravely flawed jury trial system: require blind jury trials.
By eliminating in-person trials entirely we could not fail to markedly improve the administration of justice, because every part of our judicial system is subject to error from prejudgements and misunderstanding, from the moment of an arrest to a finding of guilty or not guilty.
Elimination of in-person trials entirely
could not fail to markedly improve justice.
I direct your attention to Adam Benforado’s significant new book, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. He reviews what we know about our system of criminal justice, and presents the scientific evidence that shows how it fails, often miserably. He proposes a number of changes that would bring criminal justice into the 21st century, often using technology that is already in common use.
Prof. Benforado makes numerous suggestions, which I summarize below, but the most surprising of his proposals is also the one that shows the greatest promise: eliminating live trials entirely. There are no inherent reasons we must have an adversarial system of trials seen live in the courtroom. On the contrary, there are compelling reasons the jury should not be in the same room as other actors in a court case.
There are no inherent reasons
we must have trials
seen live in the courtroom.
This is a rather shockingly unexpected proposal, but, given what science has proven about human frailties and the numerous flaws brought about by our system of justice, trials that do not take place face-to-face in the courtroom would completely eliminate numerous demonstrated sources of error and injustice, all of which are discussed at length in Prof. Benforado’s book.
Technology makes it easy for every part of an impartial jury trial to take place at a distance, thus entirely eliminating almost all of the prejudices and errors that are part of the normal human makeup, and that have frequently caused grave injustice to be done.
There are compelling reasons
the jury should not be in the same room
as other actors in a court case.
Jury impressions of the defendant and witnesses are notoriously inaccurate and irrelevant, and are manipulated by both prosecution and defense lawyers. Witness reports are very often wrong, tragically wrong, both in identifying individuals and in recounting what happened. In-court identification of the defendant by a victim or witness is always irrelevant, because the defendant is always identified as the criminal perpetrator, thus reinforcing a presumption of guilt not based on evidence. Misidentification, from police lineups, photos, videos, and in court, has sent many innocent people to penitentiaries for long periods. Jurors are no less prone to err.
Several hundred prisoners have been exonerated by DNA evidence and the Innocence Project after serving several decades unjustly imprisoned.
In summary, there are more and better reasons for the jury not to see the people involved in the case than to see them. In this way they will be prevented from making inaccurate judgements based on unconscious prejudices and false impressions, and forced to make dispassionate decisions based entirely on the facts of the case.
If the jury is removed from the presence
of the other actors in a trial,
many of the errors that falsely color jury decisions
We are all guilty of prejudicial judgements, which are basically shorthand ways of categorizing our world. But they become toxic in legal proceedings. We can easily render a guilty verdict for a completely innocent defendant based on his “rough” appearance, “shifty” looks, “nervousness”, and “coarse” voice. We could let a serial killer go because we simply can’t believe that such an angelic and humble man could do such awful things.
If the jury is removed from the presence of the other actors in a trial, many of the errors of judgement and perception that falsely color jury decisions are eliminated. Jurors must be prevented from making snap decisions based on race, age, or gender, et cetera by shielding everything about the defendant and others at the trial from them. This does not mean that jurors would not see articles of evidence such as artifacts, diagrams, photos, and charts, pertinent video (with identifying features blocked), and so on.
Prof. Benforado suggests numerous other changes, such as: eliminating the right of lawyers to remove jurors before trial, called voir dire, which has turned into a contest to stack the deck; sending all case reports to both prosecution and defense automatically; improved forensic analysis, such as eliminating site and artifact contamination with tighter control; more real-time data such as immediate blood typing, fingerprint database analysis, and prompt DNA analysis; technology such as the Panoscan, a camera that takes a high-definition 360º photo of the crime scene that can be referred to at any time in the future; improved trauma kits for police; independent witness panels instead of “expert” witnesses paid for by prosecution or defense; “smart” devices that would guide immediate crime investigations and analyses; persons of interest in the case compelled to report on their activities in great detail, and more.
The proposal of blind jury trials
is so promising that
we cannot afford to let it slip away.
There is no question in my mind that every one of Benforado’s suggestions would improve the administration of justice. But completely removing the jury from the presence of the other actors in the case has the potential to radically improve the administration of justice. It deserves immediate extensive study and experimental assessment for eventual wide use.
There would be appreciable startup costs for such a system, but after that the court operating costs would be sharply reduced, beginning with far fewer jurors being called because few would be removed before trial. Prevention of even rare false convictions would save huge sums of money, and unworthy appeals would be reduced in the face of compelling evidence of guilt. Recording of the entire process to make it available for potential appeals would remove the necessity for voluminous paper records of every moment of the trial.
The proposal of blind jury trials is so promising that we cannot afford to let it slip away without immediate extensive study. The stakes are too high, both in justice and in economic costs.