The Courage of Our Convictions

This article argues that criminal trial juries perform an important but inadequately appreciated social function. I suggest that jury trials serve as a means through which we as a community take responsibility for – own up to – inherently problematic judgments regarding the blameworthiness or culpability of our fellow citizens. This is distinct from saying that jury trials are a method of making judgments about culpability. They are that; but they are also a means through which we confront our own agency in those judgments. The jury is an institution through which we as individuals take a turn acknowledging and coming to terms with the difficult things we as a community find it necessary to do. I suggest that the jury’s responsibility-taking role is important primarily because of what it may be understood to say about who we are as a community. My aim, therefore, is to examine one of the ways in which the criminal trial jury may function as an expression of community identity. I argue that the way in which we go about performing certain difficult societal tasks says something about what we stand for, what kind of people we are, and what sort of community we want to be. I suggest that the passing of judgment on our fellow citizens is just such a task. How we do it may be as important to us as what we do. In particular, we may want to face this difficult and defining task in a way that allows us to describe ourselves as a forthright and courageous community – a community willing to confront and acknowledge responsibility for its judgments.