This article was originally published on Investors.com.
A Missouri jury recently determined that a collections firm improperly sued a Kansas City woman over a $1,000 debt — and rewarded her a staggering $82 million in punitive damages.
In Virginia, a Navy veteran just regained his freedom after 30 years behind bars, thanks to DNA evidence which proved that two separate juries had wrongfully convicted him of murder.
Disproportionate and inaccurate jury verdicts like these are far too common in today’s justice system. By tasking inexperienced and ill-prepared citizens to determine liability, guilt and innocence — and sometimes life and death — the current system robs defendants, plaintiffs and victims alike of fair trials with rational outcomes.
It’s time to modernize America’s legal system by adopting professional juries and holding them accountable for their decisions.
Guaranteed by the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments, today’s jury system traces its roots to medieval England. Back then, as the American Bar Association explains, residents viewed citizen juries as “a protector of the accused against the government’s very harsh criminal laws.”
Today’s juries, though, no longer decide if criminals deserve the gallows. Instead, they’re tasked complexities like deciphering whether an alleged mob boss is guilty of racketeering or if one software company infringed on another’s patent.
People with the relevant expertise to decide such questions, such as lawyers and judges or scientists and executives, are hardly ever picked for jury duty.
As a prominent Chicago judge once explained, a defense attorney has the best chance of success if he can “befuddle 12 inexperienced and sentimental jurors.” Therefore, “if a prospective juror discloses intelligence and competency, he is promptly excused.”
Put another way, attorneys purposefully and with impunity select people who have no idea what they’re doing.
In any other field, this would be absurd. Imagine if modern hospitals relied on 12 random people, selected from a local phone book, to determine medical treatment — and refused to consider the counsel of doctors and nurses.
Lack of expertise and intelligence among jurors allows guilty people to literally get away with murder.
Consider Casey Anthony. Despite a constantly changing alibi — and decomposing traces of a human body in her car trunk and extensive Google searches of “how to make chloroform” — she was let off the hook in the death of her two-year-old child.
Or consider O.J. Simpson. It’s a shame he’s in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, because otherwise, he could continue his hunt for the “real” killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
No mother or father should have to watch their child’s killer walk free because jurors fell for defense attorneys’ unethical tricks.
Conversely, juries often convict innocent people or destroy family businesses and professionals’ careers by awarding exorbitantly punitive damages in cases where none are warranted. DNA evidence has helped free nearly 350 wrongfully imprisoned people over the past 25 years.
Due to incompetence, low intelligence and poor guidance by the court, jurors rob ordinary people of the chance to build successful careers and raise families. They turn America’s justice system into a charade where the only winners are the lawyers.
The jury system isn’t just hurting those on the stand, though. It’s also breaking those on the bench.
Seventy percent of all jurors feel stressed during trials, according to a National Center for State Courts report. Some jurors report symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jurors face financial hardship, as well. There is no federal law requiring employers to pay workers away on jury duty, and states pay jurors a pittance for their service. New York’s leaders, who recently passed a $15 per hour minimum wage, pay jurors just $40 a day.
Surely, those serving justice should earn at least as much as those serving hamburgers.
And for self-employed Americans — those in the “gig” economy who comprise about 10% of the nation’s workforce — a day in the courtroom is a day without pay.
Packing 12 ordinary citizens into a jury booth no longer produces just outcomes for all involved.
It’s time to grow a pool of professional jurors, who would be properly salaried employees or contractors, and receive extensive training designed to help them maintain their psychological well-being during high-stakes trails and deflect deceitful attorney tactics.
Such professional training would be especially crucial in complex business cases — it’s completely unreasonable to expect jurors off the street to grasp convoluted securities or intellectual property law, for instance.
In the current, utterly arcane system, impartiality is confused with unaccountability.
Admittedly, well-educated, highly trained professionals wouldn’t constitute a representative sliver of society. However, neither do today’s trials, given the way defense attorneys, prosecutors and ultimately most lawyers regularly exploit juror ignorance and inexperience. Today’s trials are often nothing more than a poorly rehearsed circus sideshow.
Professionalizing jurors likely would require a constitutional amendment. But that’s exactly why the Founding Fathers created an amendment process — so that citizens can reform systems that no longer function.
When Americans enter the courtroom, they expect justice. Unfortunately, the system fails and is in desperate need of reform. It’s time that our legal system evolved to actually give it to them. We should scrap the existing juror selection system and install real professionals properly trained to deal with the complex cases that fill today’s courtrooms.