Was the verdict in the Marion Barry case just?

"Justice" is a variable creature and depends on its observer. Besides, the great aim of the court system is to get arguments settled. Truth and justice are important in that system because they often or usually lead to the ultimate goal of public peace.

But our system like any other can produce some fairly bizarre results. In Mississippi, for example, it made no difference what the evidence might be, if a white man was on trial for killing a black under certain conditions. No jury would convict. You could wonder all night how any sane jury could come to the conclusion of innocence.

Then everybody (that is, those who shared your opinion) would say a gross miscarriage of justice had occurred. Damn, we would say.

Of course, if the verdict were left to a sophisticated and learned judge fairly free of hallucinations, a defendant like Barry might conceivably be found guilty up one side and down the other, but that is not our system.

We have this notion, supported by a few centuries of experience, that justice is best served by rounding up a panel of "impartial" jurors and giving them, not the judge, the authority to decide whether the evidence is true and convincing.

Occasionally somebody pipes up that there has to be a better way to arrive at justice than leaving the facts to a jury. But what would you suggest? Leaving it to a judge? We learned in the past that judges, even holy bishops, can be as arbitrary, psychotic and perverse as any fellow rounded up at random for a jury.

The weak link is choosing the jury. In an effort to find unbiased jurors you can wind up (as in the Oliver North jury) with people who swear they never heard of anything and have no opinion about anything, and they are not a true cross section of the public. We might fix that weak link. Still, I have served on five or six juries and have been locked up in a capital-crime jury, and somewhat to my surprise, have great faith in juries.

It goes without saying that the mere assembling of a dozen citizens at random does not guarantee wisdom, prudence, knowledge, fairness. All those individuals bring with them a wonderful assortment of prejudice and fixed ideas as well as a fair share of ordinary human folly. They also bring with them an equally wonderful baggage of perspective, balance, years of observation and sharp comprehension of American society.

In the Barry case, if the jury flat refuses to convict, there is no choice but to accept that verdict as true. Since a mistrial was declared, however, there remains the government option of a new trial on those charges left undecided.

It might be sensible to let things stand as they are, or it might be sensible to try Barry on just one of the perjury charges. Either course is justifiable. But as the case stands now, Barry is innocent of everything the jury did not find him guilty of.

It won't do to say the jury found him innocent but he's guilty and you know it. That amounts to contradicting the verdict of the court.

The question of why the jury refused so often to convict, and never mind all the evidence, is well worth pondering late at night when we get out our fret list.

Barry has said God is a better lawyer than the prosecution. To call God a lawyer is novel and may not be appreciated in celestial regions. I'd say it was a quite human jury, not God, he's obliged to. And my own experience is that if I luck out on something it's unwise to start tempting God to review the matter.

Surely the reason our system makes room for the vague impressions and common brainstorms of the man in the street serving on a jury is simply that justice involves more than the analysis of unarguable fact. Our system says in effect that when a jury refuses to convict, there is some reason for it and that reason is good enough for American law.

Was justice found in the Mississippi acquittals of people, against tons of evidence to their guilt? Was justice served in the Barry case?

Well, what good is justice if the community refuses to acknowledge it as just?

Sooner or later cases will arise in which you say the jury is out of its mind. Our system makes room for juries that are out of their minds and you're thrown back on the rock of finding some other system better over the long haul.

I reserve the citizen's right, of course, to say of any particular verdict, damn.