01 Mar 1998 How Jury Duty Convinced Me That We Need a Moral President
It was a mystery to me how Bill Clinton enjoys such high approval ratings in light of all of the scandals surrounding his presidency. Jury duty helped put things in perspective.
I spent last week at the District of Columbia Superior Court — just a block from where Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s grand jury investigation of President Clinton is taking place — to sit in judgement of one of my peers. I was shocked to find disrespect for the rule of law and a lack of moral direction among my fellow jurors so great that we could not even convict someone who admitted to committing a crime.
I was assigned to a criminal case in which the accused was charged with beating and robbing his ex-girlfriend on one occasion, and breaking into her apartment and beating her on another. The man’s lawyer argued the charges against his client should not be considered criminal, but rather as a low point in a “rocky” relationship. I was surprised the case wasn’t already plea-bargained, and thought it would be an open-and-shut case.
I thought wrong.
While a lackluster prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused robbed and burglarized his ex-girlfriend, there was no doubt an assault occurred. Under oath, the accused testified to pushing his ex-girlfriend into a wall. The victim, her daughter and a police officer all testified to the serious extent of the woman’s injuries.
In the jury room, however, these facts failed to sway some jurors. Rather than seeing the actions of the accused as the simple assault it was, they instead chose to read their own opinions about the couple’s relationship in their judgement. They reasoned: “Fighting is how they communicate,” “Did you see how she got all nasty during cross examination? You know she’s hiding something!” and “It was probably just self-defense.” Others professed a distrust of the police, implying the officer was covering something up to benefit the victim. They seemed to forget the accused said he did it.
After hours of intense and emotional debate failed to sway these holdouts, the perplexed judge accepted our deadlock. Since the charges were misdemeanors, the judge announced he would rule on them himself after we were dismissed. When I called the judge’s office afterwards, I was told he found the accused man guilty.
During our trial, Starr’s grand jury down the street heard testimony about the president’s alleged extramarital affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his alleged sexual harassment of former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey. During breaks in our deliberation, these same jurors who could not convict a man who admitted his guilt on the stand questioned the credibility of Lewinsky and Willey. Even if President Clinton did it, some said, he shouldn’t have to answer to the American people for it. Besides, he’s doing a good job.
Our judge took great care to remind us the accused are innocent until proven guilty. This is true, but implicit in this also is that when there is proof, we should find guilt. In both the trial I served on and the Clinton investigation, however, some seemed more interested in questioning the accuser than in using the available evidence to reach a conclusion.
My experience as a juror showed me why it is important that our president — whether Democrat or Republican — be a moral leader. Every day, millions of Americans face temptations during seemingly routine activities that can have a profound impact on other citizens: jury duty; stopping at a red light; giving to charity and raising children.
It’s easier for each of us, as individuals, to put the easy over the public good: indulge our emotion while on a jury; run the red light; spend our money on ourselves and park the kids in front of the television. Would our nation be better for it? I think not.
When people break the law, then we as a society have a moral duty to make sure this practice is punished so that it does not become common.
Our national leaders are in a unique position to influence, through their own actions, our views on the importance of morality and the rule of law. They can show us that doing what is right is more important than doing what is easy. If they fail to do so, we should insist upon it.
If they don’t, and we don’t, then we will all be the poorer for it.
David W. Almasi is director of publications and media relations for The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be e-mailed to him at [email protected].