Forty Five Years Later Juror Has Regrets But System Forges On

Burt Constable

You live to be 80, you have some regrets.

A Mount Prospect octogenarian confesses he has been carrying around one of his regrets for 45 years. It's a story that's no less relevant today.

"Somewhere around 1963 or '64, I served on a jury," he says, his voice soft but strong.

"I'm not telling this story for myself," says the churchgoing man, who asks that I don't use his name. "But it might help somebody else."

The criminal case took just two days. Attorneys made opening arguments and called a couple of witnesses on the first day. On day two, attorneys gave closing arguments, the judge gave instructions, the jury ate lunch, deliberated, and reached a guilty verdict before supper.

"Everybody was so gung-ho in our hurry-up to get it over with and get home," the juror says, recalling a grocer grumbling, "I've got bowling at 7:30."

The defendant was charged with rape and robbery. A married man in his early 20s, he had gone target shooting with a friend and ended up at a restaurant, where they struck up a conversation with two teenage girls in another car. The girls said the men pulled guns, drove them to a secluded spot near a railroad, raped them, stole $5 from a wallet and dropped them and their car near their homes.

"From the get-go, things were stacked against him," the juror remembers.

The defense attorney argued the girls were willing participants, who made up the rape charge to explain why they were out after curfew. Fourteen words of testimony lent credence to that argument.

"Quit playing with that gun. It might go off and somebody will hear us," one girl testified.

"That should have been her godsend - those 14 words," the juror says, explaining how a gunshot might have summoned a rescuer. "But it didn't even come up in our deliberation."

He successfully convinced other jurors that the stealing of $5 was theft, not robbery, but he didn't question the guilty verdict on the rape.

"I guess I was a little afraid. Today, I'd vote for him to go free, or at least have a good, solid discussion about it," confesses the juror.

The juror is not alone in such remorse.

"Post-decision regret can occur in the wake of any important decision," says Shari S. Diamond, a Northwestern University professor of law and psychology who has studied countless juries as a researcher for the American Bar Foundation.

People often have second thoughts after they buy a house, get engaged, decide to have a child, take a new job or even order the bleu-cheese dressing.

"It isn't surprising, then, that a juror would continue to think about a decision made in a serious criminal case, and to second-guess such a decision," Diamond says.

"I think that in all facets of life, there is sometimes a rush to judgment," adds David E. Camic, a criminal defense lawyer who is president of the Kane County Bar Association. "The circumstantial evidence, whatever it is, looks so damning, some people don't take time to look at all the facts."

While our legal system demands that jurors presume a defendant is innocent, that's "a pretty hard assumption for people to have and to hold," acknowledges Diamond. In her research, she's seen dozens of jury deliberations in civil cases and two films of criminal deliberations. She's also interviewed jurors who say, "I bet he did it," but voted to acquit because the prosecutors fell short of proving guilt.

Jurors can be influenced by the type of persuasion that makes people think "if everyone else thinks so, maybe they are right," Diamond says.

Judges aren't immune to pressures either, says Camic. Having to worry about elections, judges can be tempted to make decisions that are best for their careers, and let the appeal process correct mistakes, Camic says.

Courts rarely revisit cases of juror regret as "it's very hard to reconstruct what actually occurred in the jury room in an accurate way," Diamond says.

While juries could be improved with better instructions on the law after and before the trial, and by letting them submit questions in writing, Diamond says jurors generally take their task seriously, listen to the judge's instructions and sincerely work together to reach a verdict.

Comparing herself to a skeptical scientist whose brain tells him that a hummingbird shouldn't be able to fly, Diamond says she feels the same way about juries.

"It turns out juries do a pretty good job," Diamond says. "So the question is: How the hell do they do it?"

The juror who started this story just wishes he'd done it with a bit more courage and effort.

"I really regret at least not giving it a go," he says, adding that he hopes his story serves as an example. "At 80 years old, I look back at the good things and the bad things, and I see them as valuable points. And I still do. - What's done is done."