Friday, February 6, 2009

Jury Morality

Not only was I chosen for jury duty, I was chosen for the jury. I was surprised by this, though I'm not sure why (perhaps since I was 39th in the queue). I suppose if they left a lawyer on the jury, I'm comparatively very little threat.

The deliberations were interesting, and the whole process left me wondering about the morality of the system. Because it appears that justice and morality are two very different things. Should they be? This was actually a major sticking point in our deliberations. We were deadlocked.

There's a classic psychology scenario (used, I believe, to understand through their answer what stage of moral reasoning a subject has reached) that goes something like this:

A man's wife is very very sick. Without a certain very expensive medicine she will die. The man does not have enough money for the medicine. Should he steal it?

My modifications to the scenario assume that he does steal the medicine (or, since he's innocent until proven guilty, is found with the medicine in his possession).

  1. Should he be found guilty of the crime?
  2. What if he first talked to the owner of the store, who refused to help him out, put him on a payment plan, etc? Is he still guilty if he steals it?
  3. What if it turns out the owner of the store was actually an undercover cop who could have given him the medicine, but wanted to make an arrest?
  4. What if the undercover cop says the guy stole the medicine while the man says the cop opened the door and told him it was "on the house?"

My take on this is that in only the fourth case is there cause for reasonable doubt. But I don't like it.


bil gasarch said...

Some legal theorists argue that one reason to have juries is
CAN and SHOULD say
``this is a stupid law so lets
find the person innocent''
or (more like the scenarios you
``this is a stupid situation so lets find the person innocent''

This is NOT a radical notion- some
legal theorists think that the founding fathers intended it.
One problem with ``founding father''
arguments is that they disagreed
among themselves.

One way to get out of Jury Duty might be to tell the judge directly that you believe in the notion of Jury Nullification.
Look it up on wikipedia first so you can sound like you know some
history and context.

Anonymous said...

I think that the crime is justifiable, in the first three cases. In the fourth case, I think if there is evidence showing what he is claiming is true, then he is innocent.
I would asked the judge to give him the lowest possible verdict, maybe community service or something like that. I think she can reduce the verdict considering his situation.

Personally, I would steal the drag if I know that the life of someone is dependent on it, accepting the consequences of my action.

Anonymous said...

Well. The classic on this is the movie "12 hungry men".

Of course, stealing medicine is like ripping your cds into mp3 files, which we all know is a crime. So, here you go - its always a crime, even if you pay for it.

Guilherme said...

I believe that sending the person to jail is stupid in any of these cases. Jail won't "correct" the person. In this case, there's no character problem in the person and jail hardly ever corrects people. Keeping the person in jail won't make the world safer either. Finally, it will not be very effective to deter other people from comitting similar crimes.

Having said that, I do think the person is guilt. But I think that the sentence should involve community service and paying for the medicine within some feasible time. But I don't think the jury actually chooses the sentence, just guilty or not guilty, right? If I had only these two choices, I'd go for not guilty.

Anonymous said...

Because it appears that justice and morality are two very different things. Should they be?

They are different. Justice should be a subset of morality. Wasting a perfectly good cookie is immoral and shouldn't be done, but I certainly would not want to live in a country where that is a punishable act by the law. Conversely, every act of justice ought to be justifiable in some moral scale, hence the subset relationship.

In terms of your hypothetical scenario most countries make exceptions for crimes committed in extremis, most notably the right to kill when under lethal threat.

The example you give is just a variant, and as usual the law has to decide how far the in extremis principle reaches.

For example, it is unlikely a judge or jury in the US would convict a person bitten by a cobra for breaking into a closed pharmacy and grabbing a single dose of anti-venom serum.

Sure, afterwards they would ask the person to pay for the damage (and the single serum dose), but there would be no entry in the criminal record.

Try that if you are reaching for a bottle of Tylenol for a simple headache. You'd end up in jail for sure.

Anonymous said...

For all you liberals out there who want juries to be given the right to overturn all laws they find immoral, let's flip the question around. Say gay marriage is legal, and there is a case before the jury that hinges on the question of whether a gay couple is married or not. Would you want a jury to claim that the couple is not married on the grounds that gay marriage is immoral (the law notwithstanding)?

Anonymous said...

I am not a liberal, actually I am relatively conservative and I think that the question about gay marriage is completely unrelated to this situation. If you are angry about liberals, that is an other problem, but no reasonable human will think stealing for saving a life is something wrong. Lets make a thought experiment. Assume that the sick person needing medicine is a small child and the person who steals the medicine is a passerby unrelated to the child, who see the child and steals to save her life. Is it wrong or heroic? I would be happy to hear your answer about this case.

ps. I still think that the person should be sentenced by something like community service, but the jury can only suggest that to the judge.

bil gasarch said...

Neither Jury-Nullification
nor Judicial activism is
a conservative or liberal issue. The term `conservative' means at least
four different unrelated things at this point
(Social conservative,
fiscal conservative,
judicial conservative,
Hmmm- I think there is a fourth). The ABSTRACT question of
``should a jury be able to free an obviously guilty person because they think the law is unjust or the sitation does not warrant it''
does not have a liberal or conservative answer.

sorelle said...

I do really believe in our judicial system. It's not perfect, clearly, but I can't think of any way it could be made better. I lean towards thinking that jury nullification would mess up the system. It seems that leniency should be taken by the judges in sentencing.