Rush to Judgment

Jury duty looks a lot like this. Photo courtesy of Mordy Seinfeld.

Jury duty looks a lot like this. Photo courtesy of Mordy Seinfeld.

In the winter of 2013 I was called for jury duty and, like most people, I looked for a way to get out of it. But unfortunately I couldn’t think of a reasonable excuse and wound up serving on a week long trial.

This was my first time on a jury and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. Serving on a jury taught me far more than just how our legal system works, it taught me about good thinking in general and how to make good decisions.

The case we heard was a serious one, the charge was the rape of two women and the man was facing 20 years in jail. There is a lot of silence in a trial so when the charges were read aloud you could almost feel everyone jump. As the father of two young daughters, my first reaction was looking at the man and thinking, “You dirtbag.”

I don’t think I was alone in thinking this because how many of us have this same immediate reaction when we hear someone accused of a crime. We see the person in handcuffs, charges read aloud, and think, “Well, the state must have a good case. He’s guilty.”

But that assumption is wrong. Contrary to what professional hate-mongers like Nancy Grace spout on TV, the operating presumption in our legal system is “Innocent until proven guilty.” But when this case started, I started with the opposite presumption. The man was a dirtbag in my eyes and I was eager to get his trial done quickly.

Over the course of three days we heard from a variety of witnesses and for just about the entire time I was thinking “Guilty, guilty, guilty. Can we get this over with please.” If you’ve never served, trials move at an agonizingly slow pace. So it came as a shock to me, at about the three-quarter mark in the proceedings, that I thought, “Oh my God, he’s innocent.”

This thought was not triggered by any one startling revelation or particular piece of evidence. Rather it was due to a steady erosion in the plaintiff’s case. The man’s accusers were not terribly credible. The situations they described were implausible and the accusers, as much as I hate to say this, had good reasons to lie.

Jury members are not allowed to discuss a case while it is being heard. So it came as a relief when the proceedings concluded and we could finally discuss it amongst ourselves. I was pleased to learn I wasn’t alone in thinking he was innocent – 9 of the 12 of us thought the same.

We deliberated for a day and eventually the three who thought he was guilty changed their minds. After telling the judge, we marched back into the courtroom to deliver the verdict. When it was stated, you could feel the relief in both the defendant and his lawyer and the sense of disappointment in the prosecution.

This was a serious charge and I was glad to see our justice system work so deliberately in weighing it. Often the only time you hear about government is when something goes horribly wrong so it was nice to see that it actually works very well on a daily basis.

But the uncomfortable fact about all legal systems is none of them are fail-proof and they will sometimes be wrong. So it is necessary to ask which is the less bad outcome – that the guilty sometimes go free or the innocent are sometimes imprisoned? As an American, I am appalled at the idea of an innocent person going to jail and I err on the side of leniency.

Steven Avery - young and old

But why am I bringing this up now? Recently I watched the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” which recounts the story of a man named Stephen Avery who served 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Upon his release, Avery filed a $36 million lawsuit against the town that had wrongfully imprisoned him. That’s a crazy story to begin with but it just goes bananas from there. Three days after he filed this lawsuit, Avery was accused of murdering a missing reporter. So, after being released after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, Avery enjoyed a couple months of freedom before being marched back into jail.

The series makes a compelling case that these latest charges are completely bogus and it’s actually part of a conspiracy to discredit him and void his $36 million lawsuit. It is very persuasive and emotionally charged. There were moments where I wanted to stand up and shout at the TV, “That’s wrong! How can they do that.” I got so angry I couldn’t even watch the last episode. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way – a petition was sent to the President asking him to look into the case. It had 165,000 signatures.

Newton’s law states, “For every force there is an equal and opposite counter force” and so it was with the resistance to the show. Professional hate-monger Nancy Grace, as usual, lead the charge against Avery by saying the documentary omitted 60-70% of the facts. And, as much as I hate Nancy Grace and her lynch mob show, math indicates she’s partially correct. Avery’s trial was 200 hours long and it’s not possible to present everything in a 10 hour TV series.

Since then a number of other people have chimed in to claim the story is one-sided, including Avery’s ex-fiancee. All of the sudden I have no idea if he is innocent or guilty.

Because that’s the thing – it is really hard to sort truth from lies. That’s why our court system is structured the way it is, it moves very, very slowly and doesn’t permit discussion before all the facts are presented.

This is not only a good way to run a court system, it’s also a good way to run your life. We live in a world where people are supposed to form instant opinions. Events happen and we are supposed to form a judgment and state it to TV reporters or on social media.

A good example of someone who made bad decisions and stuck with them no matter what

A good example of someone who made bad decisions and stuck with them no matter what. Here he is declaring victory in Iraq.

What do we think of the politician who chooses a position right away and sticks with it? This person is “strong.” What do we think of a politician who says “I’m going to hold off on giving you a statement until I know more about the issue” or, worse, “I don’t know.” In our system of instant opinions, this person is considered weak.

I’m going to argue the opposite is true both for politicians and for ourselves. I’d say choosing a position and sticking with it is foolish and delivers terrible results.

In all things, I urge you to be like a juror and say, “I suspend judgment” at least until all the facts are in. It is also wise to hear both sides of the argument. When presented with information, aim for neutrality.

Because choosing a side in a hurry makes you susceptible to manipulation by liars and demagogues. You are much more powerful when you sit back and force people to convince you of the strength of their argument. Maintaining a good poker face deprives liars of a means to manipulate you – they don’t know what to say to make you agree, so they blurt out everything including sometimes the truth. Remember that mindlessly agreeing with and applauding everything someone says serves their interests above your own.

Above all, aiming for neutrality is a method for being honest. Saying “I suspend judgment” is admitting your own fallibility and demonstrates wisdom and patience. It shows you take it seriously enough to get it right. When it comes to choosing a side in an argument, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.