As we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, it’s appropriate to reflect not only on that which makes us proud to be Americans, but also on how we can hand down to our children and grandchildren a system of justice that honors the Founding Fathers and the generations of patriots who followed them. We have much work to do, because at this time in our history the United States’ criminal justice system is broken. I provide a close examination of many of the problems in my book, “Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murderer and America’s Broken System” (Harper 2017), but I also believe we can fix what is ailing.
Dean Strang and I traveled across the U.S. and internationally on a lecture tour following the success of the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer, which recounted the murder trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.
On that lecture circuit, we were asked a number of insightful and challenging questions from concerned members of the public. One of the most important: If I am not a police officer, lawyer or judge, what can I do to make the justice system better? I provide some suggestions in my book, but here is a simple one:
Take Jury Duty Seriously
One of the most important contributions each of us can make is to embrace jury service. For many people, the prospect of jury duty is on par with a root canal – something that makes people grimace and devise a plan to dodge it. This leaves a small pool of potential jurors who may not be representative of the community, much less of the defendant’s peers.
There is a lot of praise – and rightfully so – for the brave men and women who enlist in the various branches of the U.S. military to serve and protect our nation. They put themselves in harms way to defend our constitution. But we can also defend that same constitution by accepting our civic duty to serve as jurors, without the risk of harm those serving in the military face. Jury duty is the only chance most people get to participate directly in the judicial branch of our government. We need to accept that duty generously.
Remember, answering the call for jury duty does not mean you will actually serve on a jury. It is equally important to be honest with the judge and lawyers if you cannot be impartial in a case. If pretrial publicity or a personal experience in your life could impact how you assess the case, say so. That’s doing your duty just as much as serving on a particular jury. A case better suited to you may come around later. Of course, you must also be honest about upholding those fundamental principles that have formed the bedrock of this nation’s justice system: the presumption of innocence and the government’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Together we can fix our justice system so that generations that follow will be just as proud to embrace the celebration of the Fourth of July.