A Trial by Jury

By D. Graham Burnett

It must have seemed like a good idea. D. Graham Burnett, “historian of science,” is called for jury duty and decides to write a book on his experience. The stage is set for high drama (this is a murder trial), a sociological case study full of intense group dynamics, and a philosophical inquiry into the nature and meaning of justice.

What follows is pretentious, self-dramatized nonsense.

It is hard to imagine an author being any more full of himself, or any less self-aware. Despite being an academic on a fellowship (i.e., not working), Burnett views jury duty “as something like a vacation.” He looks forward to an opportunity to slum it among “a genuine demographic cross section of the Big Apple” (his day job at a “well-appointed humanities center at a large New York institution of learning” apparently does not provide this). Showing up at the courthouse he is coy and disingenuous – “actually ending up on a jury never crossed my mind”! But, just in case, he has brought along a copy of The New York Review of Books, a publication virtually guaranteed to turn any prosecutor against him.

Despite the failure of this initial ploy, Burnett continues to believe that everyone should be interested in what he is reading. His credentials as an intellectual confirmed by carrying around a copy of the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, he is not above a little extra conspicuous consumption:

Through all of this, through more than ten days of testimony and evidence, I walk to the court in the morning, go home for lunch (which I eat alone, reading The Economist at a small round table in a sunny corner), walk home in the evening. This strolling to and from my daily work brings me a great deal of pleasure.

Why on earth bother with that parenthesis? D. Graham Burnett, we may take from this, is not just full of himself, but full of it.

The trial is not very easy to follow. Since the actual circumstances surrounding the murder don’t seem very complicated this must be due to Burnett’s writing, or the quality of the notes he was able to take at the time. The major issue seems to be whether the killing was justified as self-defense. This leads to a dispute in the deliberations that I still can’t figure out. As jury foreman, Burnett apparently wanted to find out if the accused had acted in self-defense before considering whether he was guilty. This is backward – the presumption of innocence demands a two-step process determining guilt before self-defense can be taken into consideration. Yet Burnett is baffled at the obtuseness of his co-jurors on this point: “the proposition [that self-defense only be considered at the end] surprised me; I could not understand how anyone got such an idea,” “Logic demanded one answer: we had to begin with the question of self-defense. . . . I explained this, but the logic, for some reason, failed to move several people. I would say this was simply because they were confused.”

One can appreciate their confusion, given that Burnett (the professional philosopher) doesn’t have a shred of logic supporting his position. His claim that if the accused were to be found “properly guilty of any of the charges, the self-defense business was no longer relevant” is either dead wrong or just an example of question-begging (obviously if the accused is properly guilty than there are, by definition, no justifications for his act).

Not surprisingly, when the jury ask the judge for clarification on this point he informs them to consider the charges in order. This only causes Burnett further confusion. He tries to make the point that everyone has already decided that the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” only they don’t know exactly what of. Nevertheless, he wants to go on to examine the justification of self-defense.

This is logical? Given such a blind-leading-the-blind approach, the deliberations swiftly become chaotic. The jurors are either ignorant, bored, or filled with a risible sense of self-importance. Another academic cannot help but add her own profound reflections:

What is my real responsibility? The law? Or just the thing? I’m not sure what the answer is. We’ve been told that we have to uphold the law. But I don’t understand what allegiance I should have to the law itself. Doesn’t the whole authority of the law rest on its claim to be our system of justice? So, if the law isn’t just, how can it have any force?

Wow! Shades of Antigone! “There was, among some of us, a kind of stunned silence,” Burnett writes. No doubt this is because they are simply appalled by the banality of the platitudes just expressed – but no! “For it became clear that Adelle had gone to the heart of the matter, directly, and with great equanimity and gentleness. Not everyone could see this.”

“Not everyone could see this.” I like that. The insensitive, ignorant brutes! Who let them on the jury anyway?

From here the pretentious posturing only escalates. Jury nullification is seriously considered. One of the jurors piously declares that “justice belongs to God; men only have the law.” Again the room is stunned!

The statement centered the room. Here was an expression of despair that was a vow of faithfulness; a repudiation of sophistication that suddenly seemed overwhelmingly sage. No one spoke for several moments.

Some of the jurors are near tears. It’s all too much.

Not to be outdone, Burnett gets to his feet (I’m not making that up, he really gets to his feet), and lectures his captive audience on what he thinks they should be getting out of the whole experience. As with any criminal trial, the jury is uncomfortable acquitting an accused who they think is guilty, but whose guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Burnett’s epiphany is that “the burden of proof was so high exactly because the state was so powerful” (emphasis in the original). Together, these heroic jurors have “learned the secret of government: that the state, any state, is, in the end, like a monster.”

Talk about an insight! After all this humbug is done with the verdict is submitted with a ridiculous caveat that the jurors insist be read “in open court.” The judge dutifully reads it, and then impatiently asks Burnett if he is capable of answering a yes or no question. Finally, he is.

A Trial by Jury is a shocking book, but for all of the wrong reasons. “Are there some citizens not clearly able to distinguish daytime television from daily life?” Burnett begins by asking, and should they be allowed to “participate in deciding on the freedom of another person?”

I don’t know, Mr. Burnett. I really don’t know.

Review first published online February 18, 2002.

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