Prosecutors and defense attorneys may glower at each other across the courtroom aisle, but despite the fact that they often take a completely opposite view of a case, they seem to agree on one thing:
The jury system is, with very few exceptions, one of the strongest components of the American system of justice."Juries are very effective," said attorney Donald Holbrook. "They have an almost uncanny capacity to do what's right. When they return a guilty verdict, people tend to say, `Yup, that's right.' And when they come in with an acquittal, the response is again `That's right.' "
The Deseret News questioned several attorneys after juries returned not guilty verdicts in two highly publicized criminal trials within a week.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stewart Walz said that juries sometimes return "aberrational" verdicts, but "(the jury system) works as it's designed to work, putting a layer of citizens between the power of the state to convict and the defendant."
"In general, the jury is essential to the function of the system in a fair and just way," said attorney Peter Stirba. "It is essential to our system that lay folks decide a case and bring a common set of values to bear. Cases are not decided by Martians, but by real people who are our friends, our neighbors, our acquaintances. And their collective decision is usually the right one."
So, if everyone agrees that a jury trial is the best way to go, why do some attorneys and their clients opt to be heard solely by a judge?
"In a case where emotion and sympathy could be a factor, or human kindness, then most attorneys seek out a jury," said Holbrook. "Most judges feel those things too, but they have been trained to apply the law in a more objective way."
Holbrook said the jury or judge-only decision can also be affected by who the presiding judge is. "There are some judges I would be perfectly happy to have decide everything. It is more expensive to have a jury."
"It's the traditional wisdom that a criminal defendant should not waive his right to a jury trial," Walz said. "He's assumed to have a better chance with a jury because one person who isn't convinced of his guilt can hang up the whole jury."
"If an attorney presents his case in an intelligent way, whether to a jury or a judge, it's a people business. And the things that are important to a jury are the same kind of things that are important to a judge," Stirba said. "I've found that whether it's a criminal or a civil matter, jurors take their role very seriously."
While juries are instructed to follow the "letter of the law," Walz said that advocates like the jury system because it's more flexible and they don't have to follow the law. "(Jurors) can give results that are maybe considered by some to be wrong, but within the purpose of the jury - judgment by a group of peers - there's no such thing as a wrong verdict, which can be rather hard to swallow."
Jurors tend to operate under their own Golden Rule, Holbrook said. "It's part of the system of justice that jurors tend to think in the context of treating the defendant fairly."
"Jurors perform admirably. They weigh facts, review the respective parties and are pretty savvy about it. But until you participate in a case, you can't know everything that went on, so it's easy to criticize a verdict," Stirba said.
"The jury system's not perfect, but I think it approximates justice as closely as it can be done."
A week ago, a federal court jury found J. Gary Sheets not guilty of 34 counts of fraud and embezzlement. Walz was one of the prosecutors and Stirba was one of the defense attorneys.
Late Friday, a Davis County jury found Thomas W. Randolph Jr. not guilty in Farmington of homicide in the death of his wife.