Law in Contemporary Society

Student Jurors and Liberal Education: A Case Study

-- By SamanthaWilliams - 12 April 2008

Introduction

“The university does not try to persuade [the student] that he is coming to it for the purpose of being liberally educated, at least in any meaningful sense of the term — to study how to be free, to be able to think for himself…. When the arriving student surveys the scene, he sees a bewildering variety of choices. The professional schools beckon him by providing him with an immediate motive: a lucrative and prestigious livelihood guaranteed by simply staying in the university to the conclusion of training. Medicine and law were always such possibilities…. If the student decides to take this route, liberal education is practically over for him.” - Allan Bloom, “Our Listless Universities”

Allan Bloom’s writings on American higher education are not unlike the critiques considered in class. Bloom discusses the defects of universities in educating students, especially at elite institutions. As he notes above, these inadequacies increase as students pursue professional degrees. Bloom also contemplates the students who are part of this educational system; “Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (The Closing of the American Mind 25). Bloom claims that students are moral relativists, intent on maintaining open minds and never declaring absolutes.

Although conventional wisdom asserts that attorneys generally oppose educated jurors, perhaps Bloom’s theory of university students would make them appealing; given certain circumstances, even criminal acts could be justified. This may describe the logic of the attorney representing Jennifer Johnson, a woman charged last year with permitting another to commit assault and battery upon a child under Massachusetts state law. While several jurors were eliminated, four members who were selected without questioning were Williams College students.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Jennifer M. Johnson

Jennifer Johnson was charged under the following code: “Whoever, having care and custody of a child, wantonly or recklessly permits another to commit an assault and battery upon such child, which assault and battery causes bodily injury, shall be punished by imprisonment.” Johnson was accused of permitting her boyfriend, Marc Wise, to abuse her 3 year-old daughter, Star. Star was found with bruises on her body, a black eye, a large bruise that covered the left side of her head, extending from the top of her skull to her neck, and a human bite mark on her thigh. Star’s emergency room examination also revealed a fractured collarbone, wrist, and a perforated eardrum.

Johnson claimed that she noticed Star’s bruises, but was unaware of any abuse. She testified that Star was a “rough-and-tumble” kid and that she did not seek medical attention because doctors could do nothing for bruises. The prosecution contended that Johnson knew about the abuse, but failed to intervene to protect Wise.

The Deliberation

Upon a preliminary poll, six jurors voted guilty and six were undecided. Three of the guilty votes belonged to Williams students. Several undecided jurors argued that to permit another to assault a child would require an acknowledged agreement. The lone undecided Williams student argued that Johnson may not have had adequate time to seek help.

The three Williams students argued that no agreement was necessary, since “permit” also means to afford the opportunity for or possibility of; if Johnson knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it, she would be guilty. Even if Johnson was ignorant of Star’s abuse, the standard given to the jury was that Johnson knew and failed to act or any reasonable person would have known and would have acted differently. Furthermore, Johnson stated that during the time of the alleged abuse, Star and Wise were never alone. The Williams students argued that if Johnson were always present, it would be implausible that she had not observed any abuse.

Subsequently, all jurors conceded that they would not have believed that Star’s injuries were accidental and would have sought treatment. Each juror also acknowledged that Johnson must have seen or heard the abuse based how brutally Star must have been battered to sustain such injuries. One juror admitted, “She really hung herself with her testimony.” Yet, these same jurors remained undecided, instead arguing that Johnson may not have had the resources to leave Wise. Since Wise’s arrest, Johnson had resided in a homeless shelter. Several jurors argued these provided extenuating circumstances for Johnson’s actions – an argument not presented by the defense. This reflects Bloom’s hypothesis: “Perhaps they believe that evil deeds are performed by persons who, if they got the proper therapy, would not do them again – that there are evil deeds, not evil people. (Id at 67). However, it was a group of older jurors and not the students who subscribed to this belief.

It seems that the older jurors, especially the parents, could perhaps see their own guilt in Johnson. At one somewhat bizarre moment, several jurors admitted that they, too, had bitten their children. Johnson claimed that she knew Wise had bitten Star, though not as hard as medical records showed. Johnson stated that Star had bitten Wise in a tantrum and to show her that this hurt, Wise bit Star back. None of the Williams students found this explanation persuasive.

The Conclusion

Johnson’s conviction was undoubtedly affected by the student-jurors. After the trial, one student confessed that she was sure of Johnson’s guilt before deliberations and would “fight until the bitter end” for a conviction. This directly undermines Bloom’s assertions regarding university students. Though given the opportunity to promote equality, keep an open mind, or find truth to be relative, these students sided with absolutes. Even the one student-juror who did not fully adhere to these beliefs did not quite fall within Bloom’s description of the university student. Still, Bloom distinguishes between what students believe and what they say they believe. As he notes, “The danger [students] have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance” (Id at 25).This fear has created a necessity of open-mindedness and political correctness that seems to have only increased in law school. However, perhaps these appearances only veil absolutist attitudes that strongly oppose the moral relativism of past generations.

  • The logical fallacy in testing whether a windy general comment about the intellectual culture of the modern university made a generation ago by a Straussian philosopher predicts the behavior of a handful of student jurors in a college town assault trial decades later is too obvious to require any extended discussion.

  • Get the Bloom business out of the essay, as utterly irrelevant, however, and what have we left? Obviously the legal question being debated by the jury has an answer. You quote the charge--mangling it completely in the process, rather than stating it crisply and accurately, as you should--but you should have checked and provided an authoritative legal answer out of the Massachusetts cases: you're a law student now, not a juror anymore.

  • As it would then be obvious that the jurors who insisted on the correct legal standard were those voting to convict, you would be left with issues about the voir dire that you don't clear up, and a rather strong impression that the prosecution wanted smart jurors who weren't parents and the defense wanted duller-witted jurors whose social backgrounds suggested (to the extent that such people can be found in Berkshire County) that they might have used corporal punishment themselves in their child-raising. Who was from Pittsfield and who from Williamstown might be useful to know, for example, as would the professions or employments of the other jurors. How to see this as a conflict between absolutists and relativists I cannot begin to fathom.

Introduction

Although conventional wisdom asserts that attorneys generally oppose educated jurors, perhaps liberally educated students, who have been taught to maintain open minds and to fear intolerance and elitism, are actually appealing, particularly for criminal defendants. This may describe the logic of the attorney representing Jennifer Johnson, a woman charged with permitting another to commit assault and battery upon a child under in Massachusetts. While several jurors were eliminated, four members who were selected without questioning were Williams College students.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Jennifer M. Johnson

Jennifer Johnson was charged under the following code: “Whoever, having care and custody of a child, wantonly or recklessly permits bodily injury to such child or wantonly or recklessly permits another to commit an assault and battery upon such child, which assault and battery causes bodily injury, shall be punished by imprisonment.” Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, 13J. Johnson was accused of permitting her boyfriend, Marc Wise, to abuse her 3 year-old daughter, Star. Star was found with bruises on her body, a black eye, a large bruise that covered the left side of her head, and a human bite mark on her thigh. Star’s emergency room examination also revealed a fractured collarbone, wrist, and a perforated eardrum.

Johnson claimed that she noticed Star’s bruises, but was unaware of any abuse. She testified that Star was a “rough-and-tumble” kid and that she did not seek medical attention because doctors could do nothing for bruises. The prosecution contended that Johnson knew about the abuse, but failed to intervene to protect Wise.

The Deliberation

Upon a preliminary poll, six jurors voted guilty and six were undecided. Three of the guilty votes belonged to Williams students. Several undecided jurors argued that to permit another to assault a child would require an acknowledged agreement. The lone undecided Williams student argued that Johnson may not have had adequate time to seek help.

The three Williams students argued that no agreement was necessary, since “permit” means to afford the opportunity for; if Johnson did nothing to stop the abuse, she would be guilty. Indeed, Commonwealth v. Garcia, 47 Mass. App. Ct. 419, 422-423 (Mass. App. Ct. 1999) confirms that G. L. c. 265, 13J was meant to codify parents’ duty to protect their children and to criminalize acts of omission. The court also states that circumstantial evidence, such as awareness of injuries, may be used to establish a caregiver’s knowledge of abuse. Still, the court notes that actual knowledge is unnecessary: the legal standard requires only that an ordinary person in the same circumstances would have recognized that the child was in danger.

The confusion surrounding the legal standard prompted the jury to request that the instructions be repeated. The judge complied, although without any further clarification. When the jury then asked for a written copy, he replied that the instructions were compiled from various sources and could not be assembled for the jury. The jurors returned to deliberations with little additional insight, but the students reiterated the judge’s instruction on the ordinary person standard. The students argued that even if Johnson was ignorant of Star’s abuse, an ordinary person in Johnson’s situation would have acted differently. Furthermore, Johnson stated that during the time of the abuse, Star and Wise were never alone. The students argued that if Johnson were always present, it would be implausible that she had not observed any abuse. Subsequently, all jurors conceded that they would not have believed that Star’s injuries were accidental and would have sought treatment. Each juror also acknowledged that Johnson must have seen or heard the abuse based how brutally Star must have been battered to sustain her injuries. One juror admitted, “She really hung herself with her testimony.” Yet, these same jurors remained undecided, arguing that Johnson may not have had the resources to leave Wise; Johnson had been homeless since Wise’s arrest. Several jurors argued these provided extenuating circumstances for Johnson’s actions.

The older jurors, especially the parents, could perhaps see their own guilt in Johnson. At one somewhat bizarre moment, several jurors admitted that they, too, had bitten their children. Johnson claimed that she knew Wise had bitten Star, though not as hard as medical records indicated. Johnson stated that Star had bitten Wise in a tantrum and to show her that this hurt, Wise bit Star back. None of the Williams students found this explanation persuasive.

The Conclusion

Johnson’s conviction was undoubtedly affected by the student-jurors. This situation suggests that the prosecution desired educated jurors while the defense sought less educated jurors who would sympathize with Johnson. However, this analysis appears to oversimplify things. First, one would assume that if educated jurors were especially desirable for the prosecution – and detrimental to the defense – the students would have at least faced questioning. Alternatively, that the students had no children might have been desirable for the defense, which did not want jurors to be sympathetic to Star, notably striking all teachers from the pool. Surprisingly, though, neither lawyer appeared concerned with the legal standard. While educated jurors would be useful in ascertaining the correct legal standard, neither side discussed this issue at any length. Instead, both sides appealed to the jurors’ sympathies, either for Star or for Johnson. This strategy suggests that students were desirable not because of their education, but because of their perceived liberal attitudes. Johnson’s background did affect the students, particularly because of the disparities between Berkshire County residents and Williams students. The students were uncomfortable when discussing Johnson’s history and also in casual conversation with the other jurors. Most jurors had spent their lives in Berkshire County, where only 26% of residents over 25 years old hold college degrees. None of the other jurors were from Williamstown, which is 45 minutes away from the courthouse. Williams College had taught the students the dangers of intolerance and elitism and the consequences of poverty and perhaps this is what the defense was after. Still, the students’ desire for a well-reasoned and accurate result, along with their overriding sympathies for Star, made them essential to the prosecution

Navigation

Webs Webs

r5 - 24 Jan 2012 - 16:12:07 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM