Latest Amicus Curiae Emphasizes the Importance of the Jury

Sarah Davis, Staff Reporter

American jurors are created and not discovered, an author and professor suggests while speaking on the importance of the jury.

“Jurors should wear robes just as judges wear robes,” Dr. Sonali Chakravarti said. “It shows that you drop a lot of parts of who you are to take on this task.”

Marshall’s Amicus Curiae Lecture Series, which is sponsored by the Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy and the West Virginia Humanities Council, continued on Thursday, Mar. 2 with “The Role of Juries in Social Change.”

The speaker was Dr. Sonali Chakravarti, an author and government professor at Wesleyan University. In addition to her two books: “Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life” and “Sing the Rage: Listening to Anger After Mass Violence,” Chakravarti has written for various publications, including The Atlantic and Political Theory. 

In her presentation, Chakravarti discussed her book “Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life,” the trials of the Black Panther Party, Derek Chauvin and jury nullification. She also strived to combat various myths about serving as a juror.

“It is my opinion that juries are wrongfully overlooked as an important node of democratic life,” Chakravarti said. 

She explained that Americans often are intimidated by serving on a jury. However, she proposed that all a juror needs is their life journey.

“Jurors are not meant to be mini judges, doing exactly what a judge would have done in that situation. They need to bring with them their life experiences,” Chakravarti said. “It’s their distance from the law that makes them an asset in the courtroom.”

In her book “Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room,” Chakravarti suggests that there are three moments that help jurors understand their influence in the courtroom during a criminal trial: consideration of reasonable doubt, indecisiveness of the jury and debate on nullification. 

Chakravarti went on to discuss the trials of the Black Panther Party. These trials, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1971, took place in New Haven, Connecticut. The jury selection process for these trials lasted four months, making it the longest jury selection process in the history of Connecticut. 

“The ideas of the Black Panther Party moved from the margins to the center of political conversation at that time,” she said. 

Chakravarti then looked at the trial of Derek Chauvin. The 2021 trial took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was highly invested in by Americans. This led to the selected jurors to not be shown on the televised trial. Chakravarti notes the decision to not identify the jurors with the high stakes in the courtroom.

During the jury selection process, candidates were asked a series of questions in the hopes of finding impartial jurors for the trial. This process is called voir-dire. With the trial of Derek Chauvin, potential jurors were asked about their views on racial matters.

“The voir-dire questions that jurors were asked in this case helped to think about the need to understand patterns of racial discrimination apart from the particulars of the case,” she said.

Chakravarti went on to talk about jury nullification, which is when jurors of a trial reach a verdict that acquits the defendant, regardless if they believe the defendant is guilty or not.

Reasons for jury nullification include unjust law, unjust enforcement of the law and corruption of the prosecution.

In some cases, judges may “bully” the jury into the outcome they want. However, non-guilty verdicts must be respected in the courtroom. 

“We should not be afraid to have thoughtful departures from the application of the law,” she said.

In conclusion, Chakravarti compared the American jury to love, saying they are “fleeting and rare.”

“Their role in our imagination structures much of how we live and what crimes we think should be punished and how severely. What we believe juries can and will do has an impact far beyond the number of cases they decide,” she said.