I swear [or affirm] to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
- Traditional courtroom oath
Our entire justice system - indeed, the very concept of justice - is based on finding out the truth. Lying may be immoral but in most places it's legal - not, however, in a courtroom. Tell a lie there and you can be thrown in prison for contempt or perjury.
So how dare a New York judge punish, not a criminal or witness, but a prospective juror, merely for honestly telling an unpleasant truth? ABC News reports:
A federal judge in Brooklyn became infuriated with a potential juror this week after she made racist comments about blacks and Latinos and called New York City police lazy, in what some in the courtroom viewed as an attempt to evade jury duty. Instead, the judge ordered her to keep coming to court indefinitely...
Jurors are asked to list three people they least admire. Juror No. 799 wrote "African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitians."
Garaufis questioned her about it.
"You were asked the three people you least admire," he said, "not half of the population of New York City. Did you understand that?"
"Yes," the juror said.
"So why did you put down that you least admired African-Americans, Hispanics, and Haitians?" Garaufis asked.
"Because every time when there's a news it's always about them and they always commit crimes," the juror said. [emphasis added]
He then asked her about another part of her questionnaire in which she said a relative of hers had been a member of the Chinese Ghost Shadows gang and had been serving time in prison for murder.
"Why didn't you put Asians down also?" the judge asked about the groups she least admired.
Her reply: "Maybe I should have."
Serving on a jury is, we're taught in elementary school, a duty of citizenship; and so it is. The fact that so many people are now unwilling to serve as jurors makes juries less representative of the population and thus less fair. If juries are composed mostly of people who have nothing better to do with their time - welfare moms, the retired, the unemployed - they will be more generous to petty thieves and more harsh to white-collar criminals than is just.
Merely because jury service is a duty does not mean it is a right. Every prospective juror must be mentally prepared to judge righteous judgement to the best of their ability - not being biased against a defendant because he is poor or rich, black or white, male or female.
Not everyone can be so fair-minded and that's why prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire. Lawyers for both sides, and the judge, read these questionnaires so they can dismiss the jurors that seem like bigots.
Juror No. 799, apparently, told the truth: she did not like "African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitians." What's more, when the appalled judge inquired, she had a logical and fact-based reason for her opinion: they commit vast numbers of crimes far out of proportion to their population. As the judge ought to know via his New York Times subscription if not his courtroom experience, this is perfectly true.
Was the juror, nevertheless, able to be fair to a specific black individual defendant standing before her? Who knows? That's the job of the judge and lawyers to decide; if they'd dismissed this juror based on her expressed opinions, we'd have no objection.
But the judge didn't. Instead, he ordered her to keep coming to court indefinitely.
What possible good could that serve? If the juror is a bigot, she is unfit for jury service in a trial involving persons she dislikes and should be sent home. If she's unfit to serve on a jury, imprisoning her in the court without conviction of a crime is unconstitutional and improper.
Even more, what a horrible example! The whole point of juror questionnaires is to identify biased jurors and weed them out. If people are punished for telling the truth - guess what - next time, they'll lie.
Racists exist - always have, always will. Being a racist is not illegal - the KKK enjoys the same First Amendment rights as you do. It's just as likely for a KKK member to show up in a jury pool as for you or I.
What would be better and more fair for a black defendant? For the KKK juror to honestly state that he's biased against black people and be dismissed? Or, fearing the judge's anger, to lie about his bias, end up on a jury... and vote to convict an innocent black defendant?
On behalf of innocent defendants everywhere, we are deeply relieved to hear that the judge ultimately thought better of his rash actions.
He later relented, releasing the woman after a day of duty in which she sat alone in a holding tank. He allowed her to sneak out the back door to avoid the media.
Perhaps he remembered this saying:
It is better to be told a hurtful truth than to be told a comforting lie. In the end, the truth will make its way out and will hurt much more than it ever had to.