by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There’s this story about Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor of New York during the ’30s and ’40s. He was serving on police court one cold winter night when a shivering old man was brought before him. The man was charged with stealing a loaf of bread. “My family is starving,” the man said.

La Guardia knew the law. He told the man, “Sorry, I must punish you. I hereby fine you $10.” He then reached into his pocket, handed the man $10 and said the fine was remitted. Then he stood and said, “I also hereby fine everyone in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a man has to steal a loaf of bread to eat. Bailiff, collect the fines!”

A hat was passed. And the old man left the court with $47 in his pocket.

Wouldn’t it be nice if justice was always so wisely dispensed? Sadly, it is not. In fact, for all that has happened since those years, how strange that the biggest story of 1992 is this:

Can a person can get a fair trial in America?

There was the Mike Tyson rape case. Critics felt Tyson was convicted too readily by the Indiana jury. Racism was charged. Prejudice was charged.

There was the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. Critics felt he was treated too leniently by the Florida jury. Favoritism was charged. Prejudice was charged.

Now comes the Rodney King affair. Critics felt the LA police were shamelessly let off by jurors who ignored the obvious brutality on a video tape. Racism was charged. Favoritism was charged. Prejudice was charged.

You wonder who’s really on trial in these cases — the accused or the jury? Many object to jury duty

What makes a good jury? What makes a fair one? As LA burned last week, the jurors who said “innocent” defended their decision, claiming critics “weren’t present in the courtroom.” Many don’t believe them and feel they didn’t do their job properly.

And yet, think about the typical American when called for jury duty. His or her first reaction is usually “How do I get out of it?”

They’ll make excuses. Get medical notes. Anything to avoid taking time from their precious schedules.

I know people who have actually gone for jury selection on, let’s say, a rape case, and, when interviewed, deliberately said things like “I think women should stay in the home” just to get out of serving.

I wonder if those same people were furious after King, Tyson or Kennedy Smith.

Justice is only as good as the people dispensing it. So the first ingredient of a jury is people who want to see justice served — not those who don’t want to miss their tennis date.

Next you must deal with the representative question. And, contrary to popular opinion this week, that does not mean blacks should only be tried by blacks and whites only by whites. I find this a most unsettling thing to come out of the Rodney King tragedy. People call the verdict racist, then claim only black jurors could dispense true justice. Folks, that’s a racist thing to say.

Are we to claim an Asian can never get a fair trial if the jury is primarily Mexican? Or a gay woman can never get a fair trial from a heterosexual jury? Are we, when it comes to justice, ready to forget that everyone in the courtroom is supposed to be an American in the eyes of the law?

If we are, then all hope of democracy is gone. We might as well pack up now. Justice should be color-blind

I, too, was disgusted by the King decision. I, too, suspect the jury was too sympathetic to police, many of whom were neighbors. But I also realize a jury full of people once hassled by cops would be inclined to say “guilty!” before they even heard the arguments.

So what is fair when it comes to picking a jury? The Constitution says only that we are entitled to impartial jurors, selected from the vicinity of the crime. It says nothing about race, sex or ethnicity.

Lawyers are then allowed to go through the pool of potential jurors and pick whom they want and throw out whom they don’t. The law says as long as the pool is representative of the area, the final selected jury need not be.

Maybe that is wrong. Maybe if the crime area is 25 percent Indian, then the jury should be too. But what about the judge? Should he or she also be a match? Does a Korean-born judge get dismissed from a case involving Japanese? What are we saying about ourselves?

We are saying we need help. We are saying justice and racism are terribly difficult issues. But we are also saying this: The only hope for America is educated, thoughtful minds — no matter what color bodies they come in — minds that one day, God willing, see the stupidity of prejudice.

In the meantime, next time you are called for jury duty, you might do well to remember that La Guardia story. Put something in the hat when it comes to justice, because, sooner or later, we are all in this thing together.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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