Museum Director Musings on Jury Service Now and in 1870

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday, I briefly experienced jury duty at the San Bernardino Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga.  It had been many years since my last appearance in a court for service and I’ve only served on one case, being the foreman for one in Santa Ana that wound up leading to a plea deal.

I arrived at noon (texting now is probably the quickest and easiest way to get updated reporting information) and, after filling out forms–well, actually, not filling out one of them correctly, so that I had to stand in line a couple of extra times–I waited for a little over an hour.

There was then a video presentation about the important civic duty that jury service is and the presentation featured people, listed only as “FORMER JUROR” who talked about the eye-opening experience of serving, how they learned more about the criminal justice system, and the sense of fulfillment felt by taking part in a jury.

Then, the video monitors showed the three large panels (A,B, and C) that were organized from the mass of people sitting in the expansive waiting room.  The first announcement was that Panel A was being asked to wait until 2:30 until receiving further instructions–clearly one of the courtrooms needed extra time working on something procedural before notifying the panel of what was to come next.  At this announcement, there were many groans, murmurings and mutterings–universally of dissatisfaction.  People filed out in large numbers to take a break before returning to learn of their fate.

The 16 December 1870 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News featured a strong critique of juries and seemed to advocate for vigilantism in the wake of Michel Lachenais’ murder of Jacob Bell two days prior.

The second announcement was for Panel C, to which I had been assigned, and the news was terse and simple.  Thank you for your service, you are not needed and you’ve been released.  Obviously, the reaction and response was the flipside of that from those in Panel A.  Audible expressions of pleasure at evading service for at least another year was the order of the day and Panel C members headed for the exits with a lighter step than their compatriots in Panel A.

Of the civic responsibilities citizens have, jury duty is probably just a tick below paying taxes by 15 April on the scale of dislike.  Almost everyone you hear mention that they’ve been summoned does so with dread and disappointment.  For some reason, I’ve never felt this.  I enjoyed serving on that one jury in Orange County years and years ago.  I think it is vital that people called to jury duty accept the importance of it and do their best to make it a positive and vital public service.

I also know, however, that this view is in a distinct minority–always has and always will be, more than likely.  As I headed out to my car, I thought back just two weeks ago to our last Curious Cases program offering and to several of the others before than over the last two years.

These programs discuss greater Los Angeles criminal justice events from the 1850s to the 1870s, starting with presentations I give about the particulars of the events–who was involved, what happened and the results from local and social perspectives.  Then, there is group discussion with the participants as they share their views and ask questions relating to the particular event and the era and, often, make connections to modern criminal justice events and issues.

On the 17th, the Los Angeles Star offered its own jeremiad against juries, while claiming to oppose the mob law that led to Lachenais’ lynching the previous morning.

The program on the 16th dealt with the lynching of Michel Lachenais, killed by a mob in December 1870 because he’d murdered a neighbor, Jacob Bell, in a property dispute and it was not the first time Lachenais had killed and gotten away with it.  One of the matters raised by a participant in the discussion was about juries and the issue of whether we should have professional jurors because of perceived problems with our system.

In fact, a “FORMER JUROR” in the orientation video I saw yesterday referred to that, saying it would be a terrible idea to have professional jurors because it would take away the value of having a trial by a jury of your peers.

In late 1870, however, jurors were not held in high regard by journalists and letter writers to local newspapers, given some of the published statements offered in the press.

For example, just after Bell’s murder, the 16 December 1870 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News published an editorial titled “KILLING NO MURDER,” in which it was said

Juries must abandon the mawkish sentiment which seems to control them, and see to it that murderers do not escape through their instrumentality. If a man murders and it is proven, let juries return a verdict of murder instead of seeking to find excuses for the sake of avoiding responsibilities.  This done the responsibility will rest upon the Court which pronounces sentence . . . we warn the authorities that if the flowing tide of crime which now sweeping over us is not checked, a terrible vengeance will be meted out.  Regret the fact we may, but we cannot shut our eyes to it.  Let the laws be enforced.

Two days later, the Los Angeles Star editorialized

we cannot refrain for adding that our citizens are not sufficiently impressed with the importance of a strict and faithful performance of their duties as jurors.  Here, a serious charge lies upon them.  There is too great a desire to evade this first duty of a citizen to his country; when the honest, substantial men of the county evade this clear duty, it devolves upon the ‘professional juryman,’ who is too often a ‘friend’ of the accused, or some of the parties interested, and thus in many cases great criminals are set at liberty, or condemned on some trifling count.

On the 22nd, the Star continued its critique of the jury system, by claiming there was a “connivance of juries at the perpetration of murder, by their disagreements, or modifying the crime charged” and that this was a major contributing factor to the formation of the vigilance committee that strung up Lachenais.

This excerpt from the Star on the 22nd again castigated juries for allowing the “perpetration of murder” in several ways and linked their failure to the rise of vigilantism in the Lachenais matter.

A defender of the committee, in a letter in the Star on Christmas Eve (now, there’s some irony) claimed that “if the laws are inefficient and the frailty of jurors permit murder and crime to run through the community with impunity,” then the path was clear for citizens “to administer law as laid down by God, and not by man.”  That is, to use lynching as a reflection of some notion of natural law.  This same correspondent opined that “surely a jury of 100, divested of prejudice, are as competent to judge of the guilt or innocence of a person, as a jury of twelve.”

There was, though, a stinging and sarcastic rebuke by a letter-writer to the News in its Christmas Day edition.  This person castigated the defense of vigilantism, scornfully writing

If an honest jury and learned judge mistake the law, is society any safer in the hands of an ignorant association of green grocers?  If a learned judge errs, it si not very probable that he will be improved upon by a dealer in old clothes or that the old clothes man will be any more honest than a sworn juror. . . they [the committee] are tolerable stranglers but very bad logicians.  The sooner they hide from the light of day, the safer they will be.

Some of these views may not be that far removed from those expressed by some people today, though the circumstances may be very different now than 146 years ago. American justice is, obviously, often imperfect and sometimes controversial.  Just look at today’s decision by a jury in Portland, Oregon to acquit Ammon Bundy and his compatriots who seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year or when a police officer is acquitted in the shooting of a citizen or any number of other examples.

A correspondenr to the News in its Christmas Day edition, however, mocked and ridiculed the vigilance committee and the idea that its members, comprised apparently of grocers and old clothes dealers, could be as impartial as a jury and stated that the committee “are tolerable stranglers but very bad logicians.”

In all, though, our jury system has worked remarkably well, as has our voting system (another issue of contention for some lately), given their flaws and foibles.  My brief foray into jury service on the heels of discussing the system in 1870 Los Angeles was an interesting object lesson in how history can help provide perspective on contemporary issues.

Meanwhile, I do wonder what happened to Panel B . . .

One thought

  1. I understand the writer’s interest in being on a jury and seeing the judicial system at work. I felt the same way when called for jury duty. However, I think it makes a great difference if you are a “homemaker”, as I was, or in a job that continues to pay you whilst on a jury compared with people who are self employed or lose pay or benefits by being on a jury. I realize that you can get an exemption for hardship but it can be a great hardship to some missing time from work.

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