Once a little boy was run over by a train on a bridge and his little friend who was present, but who got off the bridge in time, told me all about it half an hour after the accident.
The kid who was killed had run back to get his dog. He had heard the train, got off the bridge, then had run back to get his mutt and did not make it off the bridge the second time.
In the trial, in which the railroad was sued for heavy damages, I testified what the lad had told me half an hour after the accident. But the boy had no recollection of all of that, and the lawyer for the plaintiff looked like two cats stuffed with canaries and the railroad paid like hell.
If the little boy who witnessed the tragedy had not changed his story, it would have been hard to find the railroad guilty of negligence, but he did change his story and the jury had to decide whether the little boy was lying or whether I was.
Besides, the railroad was rich. At least in comparison with the dead boy's parents. And when you think of that little dog, and the terror when the boy saw he wasn't going to make it in time--
The railroad no doubt set down its losses to the general cost of doing business. But somewhere the great Blind Lady of the Scales suffered another wound, as once again a jury gave justice the back of its hand, preferring sympathy with the lad and his dog.
As it happened, I did not like the railroad all that much myself and I am a natural-born pushover for any kid running after his mutt. Still, I testified for the railroad because I didn't think the boy's cause was served by lies, and I doubted then, as now, that American justice is much assisted by deciding what the nicest result would be in a case and then lying like a trooper to make that result come about.
But over the years I have been a juror a number of times and have served twice on jury panels here. It is a pain in the neck to anybody, you may easily guess, to stop what he's doing and show up at the courthouse all day every weekday for 2 1/2 weeks.
It is every bit as inconvenient for a housewife to serve on a jury as for a corporation president, and I have no respect whatever for any ass who thinks his job is too important for him to take time off for jury service when called.
If critical business is scheduled for the dates set by the court, it is easy enough to get the court to postpone the jury-service term to a later date, but when that later date comes up, then the citizen should serve. Unless, of course, he believes it would be great to have juries composed only of people who have nothing whatever to do month in and month out.
Anyway, I was once on a jury that was locked up several days. The defendant charged with murder was black and the jury all white. The death penalty was sought by the state and the evidence strongly suggested the man was guilty.
But it was not overwhelming. Yet the thing that really saved the guy from the electric chair was the incompetence of the public defender (this was not in our fair capital, by the way), who kept forgetting his client's name and who kept calling him "Boy." The jurors had no trouble detecting an inadequate defense when they saw it, but since they could not very well say, "We find the public defender a nincompoop in the first degree," they simply filled in (in their deliberations) the arguments the defender had no wits to argue and this helped the defendant.
Again, in Washington, there was a nearly all-black jury judging a black man accused of assaulting two white men the same night. The defendant was young, and you could not help feeling sorry for the way his life was turning out, especially if he went to jail. The evidence against him was so overwhelming I felt sorry for the defense lawyer who was reduced to delaying tactics.
When a white juror, a woman, tried to dream up an extenuating circumstance on behalf of the defendant, four street-smart blacks on the jury quickly disabused her of her fantasies. They brought a great deal of experience to the case that the three white jurors lacked.
The thing I have noticed in all juries I have served on is the clarity with which juries, as a body, have zeroed in on weak arguments, have detected and scorned demagoguery in pleading, and have not swallowed things that were insinuated or implied but which were not proved.
I once looked at a fellow juror who wore a velvet T-shirt cut amazingly in the front and other garments so strange they might have come straight out of Gentlemen's Quarterly, and who had the manner of a wow-wow unzippered brain. As it turned out, however, this was merely his style and affectation, as Franklin Roosevelt used long cigarette holders or somebody else might wear diamond cuff links. Bizarre, all of them, but not necessarily fatal to sane judgment.
The flashy street dude, I noticed, yielded to none in the clarity and sanity of his judgment; indeed, we were in total agreement start to finish.
Which just goes to show you. You hear much about divisiveness in America. I am convinced we are a far more closely united people than we think. And while it is certain that juries have made terrible mistakes sometimes, my own view is that when they fling me in prison for my crimes, I want to be judged by a Washington jury, not by professors or judges or writers or (God save us all) editors. Juries are not scientific, there is no assurance of justice from them, but my repeated experience has been that they are the safest repository for judging the merits of conflicting arguments.