Salanoa S.P. Aumeologo, president of the Samoan Senate, testified in U.S. District Court yesterday that the American system of juries would not work in the islands of Samoa because jurors would decide cases the way islands chiefs instructed them, not on the basis of evidence presented in a courtroom.
Wearing a dark blue, skirt-like lava-lava that swung softly around his calves as he walked across the federal courtroom here, the 65-year-old chief, or matai, took the witness stand to express his beliefs that the islands' culture would not tolerate the use of juries. Allegiances, he testified, are formed to matais, not to judges or their instructions.
The chief got strong backing for his position from anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose book, "Coming of Age in Samoa," widely regarded as the seminal work on Samoa, a group of islands of 30,000 people and 79 square miles 4,000 miles southwest of Hawaii.
The islands of Samoa have been American territories since 1900 and have been, in Dr. Mead's words, "externally" Americanized with a constitution and a three-branch form of government.
The islands have been controlled by the military most of the time and have been inundated with modern technology such as a widespread educational television system. Yet they have remained steeped in custom, and Mead testified that it would be impossible to find a "jury of one's peers" in a hierarchichal system such as that which still prevails in the islands.
"They're outstanding in the Pacific in their ability to maintain their own culture even in the face of the Marines," Mead said at one point. She surmised as well that the caste-oriented natives got along well with the Navy because the Navy "plays great games with snobbishness" itself.
The cultural clash over what Americans view as a basic constitutional right to a trial by jury rather than by judge is being battled out in the court-room of U.S. District Court Chief Judge William B. Bryant.
The issue of whether Samoa is ready for jury trials for criminal defendants has arisen in the case of Jake King, a U.S. citizen who publishes a newspaper in Samoa and was found guilty by a three-judge panel of failing to pay income taxes.
King believes he should have had the option of a jury trial and filed suit in federal court. At issue specifically is whether the secretary of the interior, who has chief power over Samoa, properly passed regulations banning jury trials.
The culture of Samoa became the key to the jury trial argument earlier in the King civil case when Judge Bryant dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction. The U.S. Court of Appeals ordered it reinstated and sent it back to Judge Bryant to determine whether the Samoan culture would react favorably to the jury system.
Salanoa and Mead were adamant in their testimony that the matai system and the influence of the matai over his family or aiga (pronounced eye-ing-uh) would make the jury system totally unworkable.
"Would the matai tell a juror how to vote?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce Lambreth asked.
"Certainly," Salanoa replied. "The influence of a matai is so big."
Another factor would be whether or not there had been an ifoga (pronounced eye-fong-uh) involved in the case, Salonoa added. The ifoga is a "ceremonial" humiliation or apology given by one aiga to another when a member of the first aiga has committed a crime against the second aiga.
Ifoga are performed by members of the first aiga draping their bowed heads in "fine mats," recognized as a form of currency in Samoa, and sitting outside the village of the wronged aiga. Charges might be dropped altogether if an ifoga is performed, Salanoa said.
Mead used a portion of her testimony to lecture King's attorney, Daniel Rezneck of Arnold and Porter, about what she implied was his lack of knowledge on the Samoan culture.
"You're using American terms and Anglo-Saxon ideas" to talk about an island culture, she pointedly told Rezneck on one occasion.
Two other Samoan officials are expected to testify and the trial should end today, but no ruling is expected from Judge Bryant for several weeks.