Most of my articles deal with the experience of the attorneys and those who have to testify at trial. My goal has always been to offer transparency to the public by pulling back the curtains on what happens in the trenches before, during, and after a trial. But I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to discuss the most important group of people in any trial — the jury.
Imagine, if you will, that you pick up your mail and find that you have been selected for jury duty. Your selection was the result of the Clerk’s Office, which is required by law to ensure that the jury represents a fair cross-section of the community.
Once you receive your letter, you inevitably ask one question — How can I get out of this? Naturally, you have a job, family to take care of, or just better things to do than put your life on hold to go sort out someone else’s problem.
But jury duty is more than just a burden to those called. It is a constitutional right that is guaranteed to people facing the prospect of incarceration. And our founders, in their wisdom, knew that this system was better than allowing unaccountable judges, kings, or law enforcement to decide people’s fate. Many people fought and died to protect this right, but that does not make it any less irritating when you are chosen to serve.
With all of that said, attorneys and judges should always keep in mind the difficult burden placed on a juror. As a juror, during the selection process, you are forced to answer questions under oath from attorneys about your personal life and your experiences in a public forum.
You cannot be excused because it is inconvenient. If you are selected as a juror, you are often required to hear about unpleasant things that most of us only hear about on the news or radio. And your decision has real consequences.
I have never served on a jury. So my knowledge of the jurors’ experience comes from them speaking to me after a verdict is rendered. Jurors are free to leave after the trial is over without talking to any attorney, but it is helpful to us to know what was important to the jury in making their decision and I always appreciate their input.
One thing that often strikes me after speaking to jurors is about a misunderstanding about their role. Jurors swear an oath to only consider the evidence presented to them and decide if that evidence is enough to prove each element of the crimes charged beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jurors have no say in the ultimate sentence a defendant receives. Sentencing is decided only by the Judge according to the parameters set out by the legislature. And jurors are not supposed to base their decision about guilt on how much jail time a defendant may or may not receive. Yet they often do. And I hear from jurors that this concern informed their deliberations, which is a burden they are not supposed to take on.
I also hear from jurors that other factors outside of the evidence infected their deliberations as well. When these outside factors enter deliberations, I find that jury usually enters a “compromise” verdict. They find the defendant guilty of some, but not all of the charges. And jurors report to me afterwards that they have conflicted feelings about the result. Some feel that they have let the victim down by not convicting on all charges. Others feel that the defendant committed certain crimes that were charged, but worry about the lifelong consequences for that defendant.
All I can say is that these conflicted feelings means that the system is working. My office tries each case firmly believing there is sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but we are never foolish enough to think that a jury cannot disagree.
All we ask as a prosecutor is that you make your decision based on the evidence presented to you — and leave those other distractions at the courthouse door. I might disagree with a jury’s decision, but I never disagree with the system or the process.
Trials are always transformative for victims and defendants. I try to not lose sight of the fact that trials are transformative for jurors as well.
Thank you to all past and future jurors for your service. Our republic depends on you.
[Marie Broder has served as the Griffin Judicial Circuit district attorney since 2020. She prosecutes criminal cases in Fayette, Spalding, Pike and Upson counties and resides in Griffin.]