Power To The Jury

The Jury by John Morgan

The Jury by John Morgan

Hollow and meaningless. That’s, in a nutshell, the opinion of Professor Richard Dawkins about the jury of our peers. The article in the The New Statesman isn’t new and, since its publication over two years ago, Dr. Dawkins expressed numerous opinions on variety of subjects, for Dr. Dawkins is a very opinionated person who rarely leaves his opinions unexpressed.

Needless to say, Dr. Dawkins isn’t impressed with the institution of the jury of his, yours and my peers

Courtroom dramas accurately portray the suspense that hangs in the air when the jury returns to deliver its verdict. All, including the lawyers on both sides and the judge, hold their breath while they wait to hear the foreman of the jury pronounce the words “guilty” or “not guilty”. However, if the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” means what it says, there should be no doubt of the outcome in the mind of anybody who has sat through the same trial as the jury. That includes the judge who, as soon as the jury has delivered its verdict, is prepared to give the order for execution – or release the prisoner without a stain on his character. 

Happy Birthday Richard DawkinsI’d love to paraphrase, reword and “explain” Dawkins’ arguments but what’s the point? He is clear and persuasive in his exceptional eloquence, and any effort to “clarify” his words would be in vain.

American weather forecasters deliver probabilities, not certainties: “80 per cent probability of rain”. Juries are not allowed to do that, but it’s what I felt like doing when I served on one. “What is your verdict, guilty or not guilty?” “Seventy-five per cent probability of guilt, m’lud.” That would be anathema to our judges and lawyers. There must be no shades of grey: the system insists on certainty, yes or no, guilty or not guilty. Judges may refuse even to accept a divided jury and will send members back into the jury room with instructions not to emerge again until they have somehow managed to achieve unanimity. How is that “beyond reasonable doubt”?

jury (1)“beyond reasonable doubt” is a hollow and empty phrase. If you defend the single-jury system as delivering a verdict “beyond reasonable doubt”, you are committed to the strong view, whether you like it or not, that two juries would always produce the same verdict. And when you put it like that, will anybody stand up and bet on 100 per cent concordance?

Power to the JuryDr Dawkins insists that — all give and take — our courtroom procedures make a mockery of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

In science, for an experiment to be taken seriously, it must be repeatable. Not all experiments are repeated – we have not world enough and time – but controversial results must be repeatable, or we don’t have to believe them. That is why the world of physics is waiting for repeat experiments before taking up the claim that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

Shouldn’t the decision to execute somebody, or imprison them for life, be taken seriously enough to warrant a repeat of the experiment? I’m not talking about a retrial. Nor an appeal, although that is desirable, and happens when there is some disputed point of law or new evidence. But suppose every trial had two juries, sitting in the same courtroom yet forbidden to talk to each other. Who will bet that they would always reach the same verdict? Does anybody think a second jury is likely to have acquitted O J Simpson?

My guess is that, if the two-jury experiment were run over a large number of trials, the frequency with which two groups would agree on a verdict would run at slightly higher than 50 per cent. But anything short of 100 per cent makes one wonder at the “beyond reasonable doubt” held to be sufficient to send somebody to the electric chair. And would anybody bet on 100 per cent concordance between two juries?

Unfortunately for us all, Dawkins  does not advocate two juries system. He doesn’t suggest any scientifically or legalistically less error-prone alternative, But he opines that the present jury system is seriously flawed.


Obviously, R. Dawkins’ and T. Jefferson disagree on the “anchor ever yet imagined by man”. Dawkins, put it simply,  thinks it is terrible.

P.S. Take a look at my Smile page as well: Kiesza’s Hideway and humorous take on it by the pair of Russian comics — Bonya and Kuzmich. Smile


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