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Monday, July 22, 2013 12:00 am

Trial by juries

In 2011’s “Good and true,” I took up the problem of biased or incompetent jurors rendering our criminal justice system anything but just.

In a recent post, Slate’s Brian Palmer looked at the research and reports that juries might reach the correct verdict between 75 and 90 percent of the time. I can’t argue with that, but on the evidence I suspect that in complex or highly media-ized trials the error rate is much higher than that.

Jurors interviewed after a 1984 asbestos liability trial, for example, thought anyone exposed to asbestos for a certain period would develop asbestosis, which was contrary to the medical testimony they had just heard. Several of the jurors refused to believe that smoking could have been partially responsible the plaintiffs’ breathing difficulties, perhaps because the jurors were themselves smokers.

Of course, we all have only the right to a trial by jury, not to a fair or informed or wise verdict. But the problem of a world and the law getting too complicated for typical Americans to comprehend is one that the criminal justice establishment must take more seriously.

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