Go to the principal’s office! Or the courtroom?

Jury box

Last week, I was called to jury duty for the first time.  I am pretty sure I was the most excited member of the jury pool as we waited in the security line last Tuesday morning in downtown Houston.  After a couple of hours of waiting, I was selected to be part of panel in a very serious assault charge that carried with it decades of possible prison time.  As we went through jury selection, or voir dare, I was at times proud to be part of this system and other times very sad to be part of this system.  Proud that many of my fellow panelists took the process seriously and seemed genuinely interested in being fair but sad that a few possible jurors seemed to lack any ability or willingness to be act impartially toward a fellow citizen.  As the judge and the attorneys focused their questions on our ability to act impartial, the alleged perpetrator sat in the courtroom and watched.  A middle-aged white male, his background was similar to many of the people in the room.  At the end of the day, the thirteen panelists seemed very much to be a jury of his peers (and no I didn’t get selected).  As I walked out, I couldn’t help but ask myself- what if the alleged criminal had been a 15-year old kid being tried as an adult?

In both Texas and the federal system, you must be eighteen to serve on a jury.[1]  From my, albeit limited, experience, the actual average age of a jury is much older.  I am thirty-three and it seemed to me that, by a wide margin, I was on the younger side of the panel.  Why does this matter?  Well, it seems the average age of a jury is an important influence on the verdict.  In a recent article in the Journal of Law and Economics, researchers looked at data from hundreds of verdicts in two Florida counties and concluded that older jurors convict significantly more often.[2]  For any alleged criminal, this bias could have a serious effect on the outcome of the trial and the subsequent punishment.  But for a child that is charged as an adult, the consequences could be even more severe.  As we discussed last time in this forum, Texas and many other states treat seventeen-year-old kids as adults in the criminal system.  However, those same kids cannot sit on a jury.  Instead, their jury will most likely look just like every other authoritative voice in his life; older, more conservative, and much less likely to understand his motives and actions than his peers.  For some kids, it must feel like going to the principal’s office except there are twelve people in the room and those twelve people have the power to send you to jail instead of detention.

Based on my jury duty experience, it seems difficult to think a kid would receive his right to a fair trial by a jury of his “peers,” no matter how well-intentioned they may be.  Perhaps this is another reason why courts should treat kids as kids and adults as adults.

[1] JUROR QUALIFICATIONS, EXEMPTIONS AND EXCUSES, http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/JuryService/JurorQualificaitons.aspx

[2] Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer and Randi Hjalmarsson, (2014) “The Role of Age in Jury Selection and Trial Outcomes,” May 2013, Journal of Law and Economics.