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Rethinking courtroom procedures in criminal trials

Most Americans have seen criminal trials dramatized in movies, and many of us have seen real trials broadcast on television. When watching a trial, it would be easy to assume that the processes and procedures we observe are the same ones that have always been in place (save for some technological upgrades). After all, haven't we always had the same criminal justice system?

While the principles of American criminal justice may not have changed very much, the processes certainly have. By way of example, consider a famous murder trial that took place this month in the year 1800. The case was notable for several reasons, including the fact that the two defense attorneys were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (five years prior to their deadly duel with one another).

A man named Levi Weeks was accused of murdering his fiancé, who had been found dead at the bottom of a well. The two had lived in the same boarding house, which was near the crime scene.

How was this trial different than modern ones? For starters, there were no women serving as lawyers, judges or jurors, because women never held such positions back then. But what some may find surprising compared to today's standards is the former practice of marathon sessions in court. These days, trials sometimes stretch over a period of several weeks, in part, because each day in court wraps up by mid-to-late afternoon.

In the early 1800s, however, trials could last into the middle of the night. After two days in which jurors heard testimony from 75 witnesses, court proceedings finally wrapped up at 2:00 a.m. It took jurors only five minutes of deliberation to determine that Levi Weeks was not guilty.

Did the jury act so quickly because they were convinced of the defendant's innocence, or because they were exhausted? In either case, it is easy to imagine the kinds of problems and mistakes that could occur related to sleepiness and fatigue on the part of jurors, lawyers and judges. In fact, at that time, lawyers were often denied breaks even when they claimed to be fatigued.

While we can be glad that marathon sessions are no longer practiced in the courtroom, there are plenty of other practices and procedures in use that may be unduly influencing jury rulings and leading to wrongful convictions. As we learn more about human behavior, bias and other factors, we need to be willing to change court procedures accordingly.

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