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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 25 Feb 2014

-Judges on Trial: Why Juries Are Crucial to Justice


Jury BoxWilliam Grigg reports on this gross miscarriage of justice, with the first ruling coming from a judge in a bench trial and the second ruling backing him up coming from another judge of the Arizona Appeals Court.

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Phyllis Bear, a convenience store clerk from Arizona, called the police after a customer threatened her. The disgruntled patron, seeking to purchase a money order, handed Bear several bills that were rejected by the store’s automated safe. Suspecting that the cash was counterfeit, Bear told him to come back later to speak with a manager.

The man had left by the time the cops arrived, and Bear was swamped at the register. Offended that she was serving paying customers rather than rendering proper deference to an emissary of the State, one of the officers arrested Bear for “obstructing government operations,” handcuffed her, and stuffed her in the back of his cruiser.

A few minutes later, while the officer was on the radio reporting the abduction, his small-boned captive took the opportunity to extract one of her hands from the cuffs, reach through the window, and start opening the back door from the outside. The infuriated captor yanked the door open and demanded that the victim extend her hands to be re-shackled. When Bear refused to comply, the officer reached into the back seat and ripped her from the vehicle, causing her to lose her balance and stumble into the second officer.

Bear, who had called the police in the tragically mistaken belief that they would help her, was charged with three felonies: “obstruction” – refusal to stiff-arm customers in order to attend to an impatient cop; “escape” – daring to pull her hand out of the shackles that had been placed upon her without lawful cause; and “aggravated assault” – impermissible contact with the sanctified personage of a police officer as a result of being violently dragged out of the car by the “victim’s” comrade.

The first two charges were quickly dropped. During a bench trial, the prosecution admitted that the arrest was illegal. Yet the judge ruled that Bear – who had no prior criminal history — was guilty of “escape” and imposed one year of unsupervised probation. That conviction was upheld by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which ruled that although the arrest was unwarranted and illegal, Bear had engaged in an illegal act of “self-help” by refusing to submit to abduction with appropriate meekness.

That’s right. A woman called police to HELP her, they became impatient that she wasn’t prioritizing them above her customers and took illegal action against her, yet SHE was punished by a judge for failing to comply with their ILLEGAL actions against her.

In our society, we are conditioned to think of a judge in a courtroom as an impartial arbiter of the law, the middle ground between prosecution and defense, but that is just an illusion. In our legal system, judges’ and prosecutors’ paychecks come from the same place, automatically biasing them similarly. Those who attain judgeships are very often former prosecutors, less often have worked defending people, and very rarely have a background in civil rights. Whether judges are elected or appointed, there is an inherent political bias built into their selection, often favoring those perceived as “tough on crime”, which translates into favoring prosecution.

This is why juries are so important in our legal system. Jurors are not beholden to the legal system to make their daily living. They are often paid hardly enough to cover their parking and lunch that day, let alone make up for regular income they may be giving up. They do not have a vested interest in favoring one side or the other in order to keep their jobs and their paychecks. They do not hear case after case after case, so they do not have the opportunity to leave the imprint of their personal biases on a huge pool of adjudications. Of all the people in a courtroom, jurors have the least to gain or lose from any particular outcome and so are the most independent people in the room. It is this jury independence that is crucial to fair trials for everyone.