Most people hate receiving a jury summons. I certainly do. But I have one consolation: I'll never be a juror. I teach law at the University of Chicago, and lawyers never choose law professors to sit on juries. Especially not law professors who have written about jury behavior (in my case, arguing that jurors tend to swing rapidly toward the already dominant opinion).
That, at least, is what i thought before I reported to a Cook County judge on June 14. The judge asked the prospective jurors about their backgrounds, and when he reached me, I detected gleams in the lawyers' eyes (the prosecutor, I later learned, had used my constitutional law casebook in law school). To my dismay, I was chosen to serve as a juror in an upcoming case. And not just any case but a racially charged criminal prosecution--the stuff of TV dramas and newspaper headlines.
The defendant, Ryan Williams (all names have been changed), was 25 years old and African American. He stood well over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. Williams was accused of battering Tom Stennis, a white police officer. According to the prosecution, Stennis and his partner noticed a parked car facing the wrong way on the street, with the rear vent window knocked out and replaced by cardboard. Suspecting the car was stolen, the officers went to investigate, and, as they approached, they asked the four occupants to put their hands up. The occupants refused. Three of the four hurled obscenities at the officers. Stennis's partner, Michael Raiter, noticed a marijuana cigarette in Williams's hand and asked him to get out of the car (which Williams did) and to allow himself to be arrested and handcuffed (which Williams refused to do). The people in the car continued screaming. Williams said, "This is bullshit" and "You aren't arresting me, motherfuckers; I ain't going to no jail." Stennis called for backup, and between ten and 15 officers arrived. They removed the occupants from the car and separated them into different police cruisers. Williams kicked and screamed; ultimately, he lunged out the rear door and slugged Stennis in the face. The police maced Williams twice before he was subdued. At the station, he said, "When I get out I'm going to kill you all."
The defense had an entirely different account. Williams's lawyers said that the four people in the car were waiting for Williams's niece, who was in a store. For no apparent reason, two officers came over to their car and asked them to put their hands up. Williams asked, "What's the problem?" to which the officers responded, "Shut up." One of the officers planted marijuana on the scene and tried to arrest Williams, who resisted arrest. At that point, at least three officers started to beat up Williams; then they maced him. Williams never threw a punch.
We, the jury, were a diverse lot. There were seven women and five men; five whites, six African Americans, and Edward Gonzales, a Mexican-American. I expected big racial divisions within the jury. After all, a young black man was accused of battering a white police officer. All the witnesses seemed reasonably credible, and each side testified that the other side was lying through its teeth. I have studied some social science on such cases, and I knew what might well happen: The jury would divide along racial lines, and the division would harden as we talked.
I was wrong. the moment we entered the jury room, everyone started talking at once, not declaring guilt or innocence but discussing pieces of the testimony. Mrs. Porter, a white woman originally from Portugal, insisted that "[a]ll of them were lying." David Broome, a young African American, said, "This is hard; there are too many loopholes," meaning that, on both sides, there were too many pieces that didn't fit. Porter emphasized that there was no medical evidence of injury to either Stennis or Williams. Estelle Winston, a 61-year-old African American woman with an air of authority, pointed out that the officers' initial reports did not mention a punch to Stennis. We all examined a photograph that the prosecution claimed showed Stennis's injury. If you looked hard, you could see redness around his right eye. But this was not the face of someone who'd been hit hard.
We took an initial vote. Gonzales and one other person wanted to convict; five wanted to acquit (including me, tentatively); five were undecided. No one believed the police planted the marijuana, and some of us emphasized that Williams and his witnesses, unlike the police, had an obvious motive for lying. Those leaning toward acquittal wondered about the photograph. And why Stennis didn't get some sort of medical report. And why the officers didn't write up the punch at the time. No one mentioned race. Most of the jurors, black and white, simply didn't think it had much to do with the central question--did Williams really punch Stennis? But social science held up better on another point: The more we talked, the more the group did indeed move toward the view with the most initial proponents in the room: acquittal.
But there was a glitch: gonzales insisted on conviction. Porter pressed him about the lack of evidence. Winston got mad, and others started to yell at him. Gonzales wouldn't budge. From my research, I had an idea: Gonzales might be swayed if we showed him that a vote to acquit would fit with his own selfconception and his highest ideals. So I asked him, "Do you love this country?" and he responded, "Yes, I fought for this country." I said that, in America, you don't go to jail unless twelve people think, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you've committed a crime. He stared at me and said, "There are only two things I have to do. Pay taxes and die. I'm not going to change my mind."
After nearly four hours, our exhausted group started to panic. We sent a short note to the judge explaining the situation. After an hour, the judge called us into court, where we were promptly dismissed. In an informal discussion afterward, the judge explained that, with the jury likely to hang, Williams had accepted a misdemeanor conviction for resisting arrest. The prosecutors agreed, and Williams, who had apparently been in jail for many months awaiting trial, went home. At that point, the judge authorized us to discuss the case.
Did the system work? Yes and no. Williams shouldn't have had to spend months in jail, but there was no question that he resisted arrest. On the battery charge, since there wasn't enough evidence, we were right not to find him guilty. One theory held true: With the exception of the implacable Gonzales, the group really did coalesce around the initial disposition of its members. More importantly, another theory did not hold true: In this racially charged case, at least, a diverse jury assessed the evidence without the slightest reference to skin color. Which left me proud to have served.
Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
By Cass R. Sunstein