Davis jurors redeem battered jury system

by William McGivern

Many members of the State Bar were undoubtedly subjected during the last few years to the opinions and even verbal assaults of friends and acquaintances after the jury verdicts in the first Rodney King trial and the O.J. Simpson extravaganza. As a former prosecutor, I was bombarded with comments about not only the performance of the prosecution in those cases, but also about the effectiveness and viability of the jury system itself.

Those verdicts elicited a common thread of dissatisfaction with our justice system -- that a defendant's constitutional right to a trial by a jury of peers, derived originally from the English system, was an anachronism ill-suited to the late 20th century.

Recently, however, the penalty phase of the trial of Richard Allen Davis for the murder of Polly Klaas offered fresh insight into the workings of the system. The jury foreman's comments afterwards not only supported the viability of the system itself, but may also be used as an example by those who favor retention of the unanimous verdict rule in criminal cases in California.

The jurors originally wanted to vote for life imprisonment, but felt the facts surrounding the crime itself and the testimony during the penalty phase "just would not allow them to do so." The foreman said he could not feel good about sentencing a man to death, but that it was the right thing to do in Davis' case.

Editorial commentators immediately cited the case as proof that the jury system, and in particular its unanimous verdict aspect, is alive, well and healthy in spite of the contrary views of many expressed after the Simpson verdict. That verdict also contributed to the jury reform recommendations recently approved by the California Judicial Council.

(The subsequent verdict reached by the federal court verdict in "Rodney King II" had mooted some of the "Rodney King I" controversy over these issues prior to the Simpson case.)

The Davis verdict is remarkable in that it demonstrates again, as so many verdicts have through the past centuries, that a conscientious and hard-working group of 12 citizens is as good and fair a method as there is to decide the fate of not only criminal defendants, but also of civil litigants. The sentiments expressed by the jury foreman sum up the essence of the jury system in America.

A randomly selected group of a defendant's peers can perceive the truth as it emerges from behind the often confusing give-and-take of direct cross examination, the mini-battles regarding evidentiary objections and the conflicting rhetoric between opposing attorneys. If the trial of Richard Allen Davis helps make this more clear to Americans, it was more than worth the costs, monetary and psychic, to pursue it.

The Polly Klaas murder, investigation and subsequent trial had another side effect -- the adoption of California's "3 strikes" law, which has supporters and detractors still scuffling. The Davis case no doubt will be cited as a reason for keeping the original version of that law intact.

However, recent court decisions have modified its provisions and future cases will determine its final form.

Whatever that form is, the conviction of Richard Allen Davis should always be remembered for its jurors, whose collective conscience and tireless adherence to their duties made them the real heroes and heroines of one of the most significant trials ever held in California.