A Trial by Jury
D. Graham Burnett
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When Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett answered his jury duty summons, he expected to spend a few days catching up on his reading in the court waiting room. Instead, he finds himself thrust into a high-pressure role as the jury foreman in a Manhattan trial. There he comes face to face with a stunning act of violence, a maze of conflicting evidence, and a parade of bizarre witnesses. But it is later, behind the closed door of the jury room, that he encounters the essence of the jury experience — he and eleven citizens from radically different backgrounds must hammer consensus out of confusion and strong disagreement. By the time he hands over the jury’s verdict, Burnett has undergone real transformation, not just in his attitude toward the legal system, but in his understanding of himself and his peers.
Offering a compelling courtroom drama and an intimate and sometimes humorous portrait of a fractious jury, A Trial by Jury is also a finely nuanced examination of law and justice, personal responsibility and civic duty, and the dynamics of power and authority between twelve equal people.
several hours picking over the contents of a large dump truck in an effort to recover Milcray’s overalls, which the hospital had discarded. Amazingly, they succeeded. Later, most of these items would prove to be splattered with a mixture of human bloods: Milcray’s and Cuffee’s. When Milcray came out of surgery the next day, his finger largely reconnected, he was asked if he would be willing to take a ride down to the station house in order to look over some photos, in hopes of making an
another week), but there would also be the difficulty of sorting out what specific bits we wanted to hear. How could we agree on what those were? If we really needed to hear them again, it was presumably because we weren’t sure what had been said; but if this was the case, how were we to specify to the court exactly what part we wanted? This rule made a certain kind of close work with the witnesses’ evidence impossible. For instance, a detailed collation of all the different times given by those
seems that it is in the nature of reason to expose failures, slips, holes—to reveal them. A system that tried to hide its flaws would be, then, to that degree, less perfect than one that was avowedly imperfect. If the law could not get the defendant, then the law made us release him. It explicitly forbade us to nudge the rules to get the desired answer. In my reverie, the failure of the law was taking shape as its triumph, but when I rejoined the conversation, I heard growing consensus that the
have to do. I believe Monte Milcray did something very, very wrong in that room. But I also believe that nobody has asked me to play God. I’ve been asked to apply the law. Justice belongs to God; men only have the law. Justice is perfect, but the law can only be careful.” The statement centered the room. Here was an expression of despair that was a vow of faithfulness; a repudiation of sophistication that suddenly seemed overwhelmingly sage. No one spoke for several moments. He did not try to
taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, and is currently an assistant professor in the History Department at Princeton. Also by D. Graham Burnett Masters of All They Surveyed This Is a Borzoi Book Published by Alfred A. Knopf Copyright © 2001 by D. Graham Burnett All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.