In the end, it came down to a single juror. Although disgraced and disgraceful ousted Illinois Gov. Milorad Blagojevich has been convicted on one count of lying to federal agents, the jury deadlocked on the other 23 counts. The jury reportedly would have convicted him on many more, perhaps most, of those counts too, if not for a lone holdout juror.
In the end, it came down to a single juror.
Although disgraced and disgraceful ousted Illinois Gov. Milorad Blagojevich has been convicted on one count of lying to federal agents, the jury deadlocked on the other 23 counts. The jury reportedly would have convicted him on many more, perhaps most, of those counts too, if not for a lone holdout juror.
Legal analysts and assorted pundits have already begun dissecting the Blagojevich trial and verdict to determine what went wrong. Inevitably, given Chicago’s long-established reputation for corrupt politics, and given the fact that Blagojevich is yet another corrupt Chicago politician, a few people have been wondering if there wasn’t some jury tampering. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe that’s what happened here, though.
Joel Levin, who helped convict Blagojevich’s corrupt predecessor George Ryan, said he thinks “the case was lost in jury selection.”
He may be right. In choosing a jury, the prosecution and the defense try to exclude jurors who seem unfavorable to their respective sides, but it’s hardly a foolproof process. In a society where every adult citizen has not only the duty but the right to be called to serve on a jury, you just can’t ever be sure if one or more juror isn’t someone who really isn’t intellectually or psychologically suited to the task.
It’s a palpable risk we have to take any time a jury is seated to consider testimony and evidence and render a verdict. Usually the process works out pretty well, but sometimes we get hung juries or crazy verdicts. It might be that the prosecution didn’t do a good job, or the defense did a really good job, or it might be who the jurors are.
So many variables affect the outcome of a jury trial, and sometimes it really is the case that one or more jurors is what legal experts call “a blithering idiot” or “a braying jackass.” Let’s face it — some people are just dumb as a box of rocks, and it’s usually a misfortune for everyone when they end up on a jury (though even fairly unintelligent people can reach a correct conclusion, even in spite of themselves).
Some jurors aren’t as intelligent as we need them to be. Some manage to hide their biases during jury selection. And some don’t pay attention during trial — in covering one trial for the Pekin Daily Times some years ago, I saw one juror taking a snooze during testimony.
On another occasion, I witnessed the debacle of a coroner’s jury that rendered a bizarrely oxymoronic verdict of “accidental homicide,” utterly failing to understand their instructions that plainly distinguished between “accidental” and “homicide” as two separate and mutually exclusive causes of death. Admonished by the coroner to resume deliberations and come back with a verdict that was legally permissible and didn’t violate the fundamental logical law of noncontradiction, the jury returned with a verdict of “homicide” . . . in a case which the evidence showed to have been only a tragic accident.
Trial by jury is a venerable legal tradition, reaching back through English common law to the ancient Germanic tribes of northern and central Europe, who envisioned a pantheon of 12 gods empaneled and holding court over creation under the presidency of Odin.
Later on, the Magna Charta brought us the principle of a trial by a jury of one’s peers — 12 of them, just like Odin’s divine court. “Peer” means “a companion,” “an equal,” but back then “peer” was a synonym for “nobleman.” The nobility wanted to protect themselves from the king’s justice (or injustice, as the case may be), not defend the rights of the lower classes, so trial by jury at first was exclusively for the aristocracy and landed gentry. Eventually, that right would be extended to everyone regardless of class, sex or race.
Despite this venerable heritage, there are times when you have to wonder if trial by jury is really the best way to do things. One could argue that a trial before an informed, intelligent judge (or panel of judges) might be more likely to result in a just verdict than a trial before a jury made up of registered voters summoned at random and pared down during jury selection.
Not even judges are infallible, though. That’s the chief flaw in any system of justice: fallible humans must consider whatever facts may be at hand and then render a verdict.
So the federal prosecutors will go back and take another whack at Blago, and odds are we’ll see a better outcome the second time around. No, not a perfect outcome, but, like the tradition of trial by jury, probably about as good as we can get.
Jared Olar may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.