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Sitting in a jury pool brought respect for Bibb courts, thoughts on our republic

What happened when a jury didn’t do as it was told

At the recent trial of Onterio KeShawn Smith, charged with aggravated child molestation in Bibb County, Georgia, jurors didn't do as Judge Howard Z. Simms told them. What happened next is a reminder of the importance of juror impartiality.
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At the recent trial of Onterio KeShawn Smith, charged with aggravated child molestation in Bibb County, Georgia, jurors didn't do as Judge Howard Z. Simms told them. What happened next is a reminder of the importance of juror impartiality.

The United States is not an autocracy, dictatorship or monarchy. Some scream that we have become one, but the very fact they can scream and claim it, is proof we are not. People still have the right to free speech. No one compels your worship. But, your life comes with certain obligations to the country because we are a republic.

I get annoyed with people who argue vociferously that “we are a republic, not a democracy!” The founders were fascinated by the idea of the Roman Republic with the advance of the post-Renaissance Enlightenment. But a republic is a Roman idea for the Greek concept of democracy. They have certain idiosyncrasies, but are largely the same. The Western world has fought over Latin and Greek word usage for 2,000 years and that fight arguably contributed as much to the division of Christendom between Catholics and the Orthodox as the Filioque.

Whether one wants to claim, as the founders did, that we are a republic, or as others do that we are a democracy, both require of us obligations to keep the country running. One of those obligations is to vote, hopefully based on reasonably informed opinions. The other is the obligation for jury service.

The Sixth Amendment to our Constitution states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” That jury must be made up of citizens. We have that constitutional obligation.

I have served on a jury panel three times. Once for a criminal trial, once for a civil trial and once in jury purgatory — waiting for a week to see if I would be needed. That last was two weeks ago. If you ever want to be reminded of what it was like the first day back at school when no one wanted to be there, go to a jury pool. No one really wanted to be there.

But we are required to be there. It is a necessary function. Historically, American citizens felt compelled and obligated to sit on juries. The resistance to sitting on a jury is a late 20th century conceit of selfishness and a belief that our individual time is more valuable than safeguarding the rights of our republic. For those who think our society is going to hell in a hand basket, perhaps spend more time committing yourself to your obligations to our republic. Our system of laws and courts cannot function without your service.

We also, as a republic, need a competent court system. I was absolutely impressed with our clerk of Superior Court, Erica Woodford. She dealt with a crowd of over 100 people in a hot, crowded room, with humor, a good bit of diplomacy and as much efficiency as she could while dealing with those showing up an hour late.

My jury panel was considered for a murder trial. I did not get selected. But in the process, Judge Verda Colvin handled a difficult situation with a good bit of humor, firmness and efficiency. The attorneys for the state and defendant were able to ask jurors questions to choose their jury pool. Everyone did their part with courtesy and an understanding that citizens were called out of their daily lives to serve our republic. We must do our part. Now if only Bibb County would build a parking deck for jurors.

Erick Erickson is host of Atlanta’s Evening News on WSB Radio.

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