Jury service is one of the most common of all the burdens of citizenship (unless you consider voting a burden); and yet we have very few accounts of how juries actually work. In 1955, the University of Chicago Jury Project began to record jury deliberations surreptitiously (with the consent of judges); word of this unorthodox research method leaked out, and in the subsequent furor Congress and many states banned the recording of jury discussions. Later studies, including The American Jury (1966), a book based on the Chicago project by Harry Kalven Jr. and Hans Zeisel, have relied on reconstructions of what happened in the jury room or on mock trials.
Scholars have sharply disagreed over whether juries have the collective intellectual capacity to unravel the complex problems presented in many civil cases; whether jurors can be expected to leave their prejudices behind them; whether they can make judgments that are genuinely independent and not reflective of their race or class. Kalven and Zeisel emphasize the social values that guide the jury’s thinking. “The real decision,” they write, “is often made before the deliberations begin.” On the other hand, Jeffrey Abramson, a professor of politics at Brandeis, argues in We, the Jury that jurors take their job far more seriously than most lawyers and experts imagine, and should be entrusted with more responsibility than they now are.
A Trial by Jury is, by contrast with these earlier books, a report from the trenches; the author, D. Graham Burnett, is a historian of science who was minding his own business as a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Center for Writers and Scholars when, in 1999, he received a summons from the Manhattan Criminal Court to report for jury duty. He was chosen to serve on a murder trial, and embraced the opportunity with an academic curiosity, which is to say that he was as interested in drawing broad inferences as he was in observing details. He noticed, for example, that he and his fellow jurors were far more attracted to wildly elaborate hypothetical possibilities than to straightforward explanations, since “the sense of drama goads one to raise the dramatic ante; to conceive of fantastic resolutions worthy of the setting, the cast, the deeds.” Philosophers may prefer Ockham’s razor, he concludes, but jurors wield “Ockham’s knitting needles.”
In the first and certainly less interesting half of the book, Burnett recounts what happened during the trial itself. There was never any doubt that the defendant, a young black man named Monte Milcray, had killed the victim, a male prostitute named Randolph Cuffee. The only question was whether he had acted in self-defense. Milcray’s story was that Cuffee, a much larger man, had lured him to his apartment by dressing as a woman, and had then cast off his disguise and tried to rape him; Milcray had defended himself with a knife and stabbed Cuffee to death. The prosecution’s story was that Milcray, though engaged …