The Definition of Reasonable

I have great sympathy with the Libby jury, which now wants to know just how to define “reasonable” according to this Washington Post story.

I have always wondered just what “reasonable doubt” means, and it appears that lawyers really have very little idea either. Perhaps my own problem is that I find doubt so eminently reasonable. My Christianity is a serious conviction, but most of the details are quite subject to doubt. I’m quite willing to say “I don’t know.” In some ways, belief in God is simply a huge “I don’t know.”

But these little incidents with the jury system always set me to wondering just how valuable the jury system is at this point. From my layman’s point of view it seems that we gather a group of people who are too stupid, too busy, or too apathetic to be aware of an incredibly high profile case, then we put them in the jury box, and feed them precisely what the judge determines they ought to hear, and tell them to decide someone’s life.

After I’ve thought about it for a bit, I generally come back to the conclusion that with all of its faults, the jury system is better than the alternatives. If I was innocent, I think I’d prefer a kind of expert panel. In Libby’s case, for example, we could find a couple of neutral experts on memory, others on jury and investigative procedure, others on administration in political offices. It seems to me that such people would be much more capable of making a determination.

In its earlier form, a jury trial made it harder for a superior to pack the case. After all it’s easier to appoint one corrupt judge than it is to pack a jury. Now our concern is more with popular influence and with access to evidence that is not part of the record, the record being all-sacred to attorney’s. It reminds me of a chat I had with one of my college professors who was also an attorney, and had a part time practice. He explained his strategy for a criminal case, and a question he was going to ask a certain witness. I said that not being an attorney, I would hate to argue with him, but it sounded like the answer to that question would be inadmissable. He said I was absolutely right, but by the time that was settled, it would be in the jury’s minds, and while stricken from the record it would stay there.

I’ve never been summoned for jury duty, something that surprises me since a number of people I know have been summoned several times. But now I wonder if I would make it past voir dire. Perhaps my definition of reasonable would not seem reasonable to the legal profession. After reading the extensive discussion of jury selection for this trial, I wonder even more whether we can end up with a group of people who have any chance of determining “reasonable.”

Perhaps I just don’t trust “the people” enough. Actually, I’m pretty certain I don’t. The only people I trust less are the people’s leaders.

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