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Feature Article on Juries. Topic: LAW & ORDER
Written by Rich Wallace in October, 1995


The citizens were upset. As word of the verdict spread, the public ire seemed to gather momentum and roll like thunder across the fall sky. What could have the jurors been thinking? The jury system had run amok. Los Angeles in October, 1995? No - Sidney in 1889. The story of our double-sided fascination and exasperation with the jury system is not a new one.

When the grand jury indicted Sidney resident Harvey Reader of assault with intent to commit rape, he of course hired as good a lawyer as he could afford and demanded a trial by jury. On the day of his trial, the task of selecting a jury began, with each side extolling the virtues of its case and seeking to select those thought to be most favorable. The final twelve included Milton Bennett, T.F. Wilkinson, Levi Austin and S.R. Huffman. The trial was set to begin.

Although trial by jury dates from 725 A.D., as early as during the Roman Empire, citizens were called upon to decide community disputes by rendering verdicts as a "citizen judex." The more humane trial by jury replaced trial by ordeal that was common in many cultures for centuries. Under Saxon law, for example, if you could walk barefoot over nine red-hot plowshares without your feet blistering, you were considered not guilty. When Harvey Reader's jury found him not guilty, the reaction around town was immediate. The Shelby County Democrat even jumped into the fray with its lead editorial. "The Democrat does not often notice verdicts of juries (but) this case deserves more than passing notice." The paper went on to find the conduct of Reader "brutal and outrageous." The victim had made her escape from Reader's buggy "bruised and frightened." The paper scolded the jury for allowing "a clear case of outrage" in clearing Reader from accosting her female virtue, "the highest ornament to female character." Criticism of the results of a jury trial in Shelby County was not new. In May of 1865, The Sidney Journal carried an anonymous letter to the editor blasting partisan politics for influencing a jury verdict. A young black man had filed suit against a township official for denying him the right to vote. His case had gone to trial twice - with the same result. The juries both times split along party lines, the Republicans voting for him and the democrats against. The letter ended with the admonition that "A juror who...disregards the law and the testimony is a dangerous man in society."

When the edition of the Democrat carrying the editorial denouncing the jury in the Reader case hit the street, the jurors who had served were furious. Six of the twelve jurors immediately composed a response to the editorial, which the Democrat printed in the following Friday's paper.

Accusing the editor of doing them a "great injustice," the jurors recounted how they had carefully considered the evidence. They took a parting shot at the editor and others who they felt were second-guessing them: "We have no objection to criticism from any one who heard all the evidence, as we did, but we object to criticism from those who only heard part or none of it, as we do not deem them competent critics."

"Loopholes" in the law, and the quality of the jurors serving are hot topics for discussion in 1995. The nature of human beings being what it is, not a lot has changed. These and other issues were on the mind of General James Amos, proprietor of the Democrat, when he penned an editorial for the April 18, 1884 edition of his paper.

A key to avoiding wrong decisions by juries was, in his estimation, to get "more intelligent men to sit in the jury box." The jury selection process should not be used to deprive the parties of the wisdom intelligent people can bring to the deliberation. General Amos also wanted more justice "that strikes at the facts of the case" and less "hair-splitting points of law spun out by the judge upon the bench."

With the technicalities of the law, Amos felt that "many escape the responsibilities of their acts." Gen. Amos echoed sentiments often heard today: "Let the law be amended so as to give the criminal a fair and speedy trial to an intelligent jury." In the years that followed, the jury process continued to be a hot topic of discussion. In 1923, the Sidney Daily News ran a story about concerns involving the jury system. Citing a disturbing trend that men of means were using any available means to avoid jury duty, the Daily News asked "Is that leave jury work to the man of the street who is glad for the fee it pays because he is not worth that much anywhere else?" The recently concluded Simpson case has been rightly criticized for being as much about entertainment as justice. A century ago, before the advent of television, trials in Sidney were public scenes of high drama. Three years after the new courthouse was completed in 1881, the common pleas judge remodeled the court room, substantially reducing its size. The Democrat complained that only 154 spectators could now be seated as opposed to the usual 300. In the early days, as many as 500 would watch a trial. Today, few people ever view the proceedings. Another frustrating thing about juries is their penchant to do the unpredictable. In 1894, the Shelby County Democrat reported a story told by Judge Goode. He had presided over a jury trial involving a man charged with theft. When the presentation of the evidence was completed by noon, the judge charged the jury and sent them out to deliberate, without allowing them to go to lunch. One of the jurors said "I will be damned if I will stand for this." The man apparently left, and the jury was never discharged its deliberations. The Democrat noted that the jury is presumed by law to still be deliberating. Again in 1995, many are clamoring for the elimination or substantial curtailment of the right to trial by jury. General Amos told his readers in 1884 that "We sometimes hear (of) persons opposed to a trial of facts by jury, or speak of the uncertainty of a verdict of a jury." But the problems with the system are "due to the liberality of the law, and not the jury system itself," Amos wrote.

General James O. Amos, publisher of the Sidney Daily News from 1891 to 1918, frequently
penned editorials relating to the local jury process.

generalamos.gif (60820 bytes)

The Buddie Shang case, involving a Randolph slave acquitted by an all white jury of the shooting death of a white man in 1890 is a shining example justice of Shelby County justice at its finest. There have been many others. The words of General Amos in 1884 are as true now as ever: "Trial by jury will continue as long as popular government exists....No fairer mode of trial can be devised for doing justice than by a jury of intelligent men."


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