Today, just prior to convicting Drew Peterson of killing his wife, his jury sent a message to the judge asking what the word “unanimous” meant.
Think about the implications of this. First of all, it means that one man’s life and the U.S. justice system’s integrity is resting on the judgment of twelve people, not one of whom possesses a fifth grade vocabulary, or, if one of them does, he or she did not possess the skills of persuasion or credibility to convince a majority of his colleagues that yes, “unanimous” means that everybody is in agreement. It means that the voir dire system managed to carefully select the most ignorant and inarticulate jury of adults imaginable for a first degree murder trial.
That’s not all. It means that in Joliet, Illinois, a select group of twelve adults, in addition to possessing only a rudimentary English vocabulary, were completely uninformed about the jury system. To reach adulthood this stunningly ignorant about one of the basic features of our justice system and democracy, these individuals could not have regularly read newspapers or watched the news, and if they did, could not possibly have understood what they were reading or seeing. They ignored the O.J. Simpson case and the Casey Anthony trial, but also failed to comprehend “Law and Order,” and any number of other examples of popular entertainment that regularly involve the jury system. Is there any chance that individuals who have to ask what “unanimous” means (what did they think it might mean, when the judge told them that “your decision must be unanimous”? Enthusiastic?) could comprehend far more difficult concepts like reasonable doubt? Could they have a working knowledge of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights? What are the chances that such a jury understood, with its 4th grade vocabulary, the questions asked by the lawyers during the trial? The evidence? Expert testimony?
It does not take a lot of school, great teachers or intelligence to learn what “unanimous” means. It takes the intellectual curiosity necessary to pay minimally adequate attention to the world around you. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by paying teachers more. This is a problem that can be solved by creating a culture in which everyone is encouraged to value knowledge and to accept the responsibilities of living in a community and take it seriously. For more than a year, I have been listening to heated rhetoric based on the false premise that effort, education, knowledge and character have no relationship to one’s success, that it is all connections and luck. I will say right now that I resent having to contribute one penny to the living expenses of anyone who passes through puberty without a serious closed head injury and who has not interacted with the rest of the world sufficiently to encounter and learn the word “unanimous.” I resent even more the fact that such people not only determine the direction of our political process, but also are the ones candidates pitch their appeals to. I resent that such people respond by electing Todd Akin, Michele Bachmann and Maxine Waters to Congress. I resent that our justice system, criminal or civil, is warped by their intellectual apathy and laziness.
I have mentioned “I.Q. 83” here previously; it was a thin paperback techno-thriller by Arthur Herzog that I read during a lunch hour at a book shop in the 80’s. Yes, I should have bought it. I wish I had, because not to was unethical and also because I have wanted to re-read it many times since. The book was a cross between “The Andromeda Strain” and “Flowers For Algernon,” with a genius scientist hero who discovers a virus responsible for mental retardation. The virus gets out into the population, of course, and spreads quickly, gradually lowering the IQ of the United States to a mean of 83 and falling. He is infected too, and the suspense arises from his race to find a cure before he is too stupid to care. The book is pretty funny as it describes life in an increasingly stupid country, with newspapers full of blank pages and typos, and the New York Times sporting the headline, as I recall it, “Is We Geting Dummer? Sientsist Consernd.”
The story of the Peterson jury is one of many I have encountered in the intervening years that makes me feel that the nightmare of the novel is coming to pass. There is no virus to blame in the real United States, however, which makes the evidence of creeping stupidity and ignorance less excusable and more frightening. The causes are apathy, lack of standards, lack of pride, and the failure to build a culture where civic involvement is regarded as an honor, and being prepared to fully and competently engage in it is recognized as every citizen’s obligation. Unanimously.
Instead, we have whole juries filled with people who don’t know what the word means.
Graphics: TV Tropes
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