Can we really be fair?

So I did my jury service. More details later, but first I want to consider all the preliminaries that go up to the actual trial, namely jury selection and the question of “fairness.”

I went through the selection process for two different trials (the first trial was settled in a plea bargain just after the jury was selected and seated, which meant I was shepherded to another courtroom for another round of jury selection). In both courtrooms the assistant district attorney asked every member of the jury, several times, if past incidents in our lives would affect our ability to be fair.

We are expected, in a criminal trial, to put aside all past experiences and enter the courtroom as blank slates. A number of times, a fellow jury member was asked if some experience, say, their own divorce from a physically abusive husband, would affect their ability to be fair, here, today, in this trial of a husband accused of assaulting his wife and child. The jurors in the first trial all answered yes, they could be fair, or at least they would like to think they could be fair.

But could they really? Can anyone ever really be fair?

I think fairness is a myth. We all have our biases and they don’t disappear when we enter a courthouse. A fair juror is like the rational consumer economists premise their calculations on: they don’t exist.

At the same time, however, I believe most people will not be unreasonably unfair due to their past experiences. Although, a few potential jurors in the second trial seemed to be counting on this as a way to be excused from service. One of the witnesses was to be a police officer, and so the judge asked if any people in the juror pool had family members who were also police officers. One woman’s brother-in-law was a cop, and so the judge asked her directly if that would influence in her mind the credibility of the cop’s testimony. She thought about it, and said yes: because she trusts what her brother-in-law says, she would automatically trust the cop in the courtroom. The judge visibly scoffed at this. He said, “Do you mean that because you find your brother-in-law credible, you’ll automatically believe this totally different man whom you don’t know?”

The judge was accusing her of faulty logic and he was correct, it is flawed logic. But again, this is how people operate. There’s too much data in the world so we have to take shortcuts when we can. In this case, the juror relied on an association fallacy (my brother-in-law is truthful; my brother-in-law is a cop; therefore, all cops are truthful). To a rational outsider, the logic obviously doesn’t make sense. But that doesn’t make the logic any less real for the woman.

The judge dismissed that juror and a few more too. Several hours later, the judge and lawyers had finally found twelve “fair” jurors and one alternate juror (that would be me), who was presumably “fair” as well.

Update on Burglary

First the facts…the word floating around town was that there were over thirty break-ins over the holidays. The police have announced that there have actually only been twenty-four reported break-ins. So already I feel safer. (So already I feel safer?)

Other facts: mostly jewelry was stolen. Yes, some Oreos. And in one case, seven bars of Irish Spring soap. No electronics, no firearms, no alcohol, none of the Christmas presents wrapped under all the trees.

The police announced all this at a recent community meeting, held on the neighborhood green, which I left feeling like I had just stumbled in and out of a Twilight Zone episode. Which episode? Any of them, I guess.

The police chief told the crowd of nearly fifty that the thief is most likely “one of us” and could even be there at the meeting. I had momentary visions of the Salem witch trials–neighbors turning on each other, fingers pointing, the gallows being readied right there in the middle of the green, hastily assembled from nearby benches. Luckily, my neighbors all had cooler heads than that.

My own theory is that the criminal is a college kid, who was home for the holidays and needed some cash. Gambling debts? It was either steal his neighbors’ jewelry or have his kneecaps broken? Or maybe he wanted to woo his girlfriend with an awesome Christmas present? The police estimate that the total value of all the goods stolen is about $31,000. That could buy a nice iPod and a few accessories. (Of course, why not just steal some of the doubtless countless iPod-shaped presents that were under everybody’s Christmas trees?)

At any rate, in our own household we were lucky. Or just a plain waste of the thief’s time. We can’t find anything missing. We don’t have many valuables, but it’s not like we don’t have any. Surely the crook could have found something worthwhile to steal after going to all the trouble to break in? Truth be told, I feel a little dissed. Like somehow I wasn’t good enough to rob.

The American dream lives on…