2012 Essay Contest Winners

2012 Essay Question: When entering the courtroom prior to the start of a criminal trial, jurors often have preconceived notions of the people involved. They look at the judge as the person who will preside over the case and make certain rulings during the trial. They look at the prosecutor as the person who will try the case on behalf of the government. When they look at the person accused of the crime, the defendant, they rarely ask themselves, "I wonder what that innocent person is charged with?" More frequently, they think, "I wonder what that person did?" Please discuss why this is wrong and the way in which this way of thinking affects your own civil liberties.

Kayla Campbell – Carlisle High School

I believe that our founding fathers were correct in their thinking that a jury is necessary in a democratic society. In a trial, the jury decides the fate of the accused person(s). Although the members of the jury are merely everyday, average citizens, their role is vital in the court. All citizens in America have a civic duty which is the responsibility to participate in government. Because of this civic duty, it is their responsibility to participate in jury duty when called upon to do so. Being a juror gives citizens that sense of empowerment; they are making a difference in someone's life. Jury members are required to listen to the case and decide whether they think the perpetrator is guilty or innocent. If there was no jury, then the fate of one person would be left in the hands of one judge. With no one to bounce their ideas off of, a judge may make a poor and irrational decision. With a jury, there is time to debate and reflect upon the case as a whole. Also, the jury has to be unanimous, or at least have a majority in some cases. Because of this, multiple people must agree on their verdict. The jury is the "naked eye" when it comes to the court system. The lawyers and the judges are extremely well aware as to the norms of the court and certain things to pick up on. However, jurors do not see and know these things as well and therefore are a less bias in making their decision. The jury is a vital part of the court system and democratic society in America. Taking away the jury would prevent Americans from being able to be more active in their government, and it would give the judge too much power if he/she were the only one to decide a verdict; there would be no naked eye to help reduce bias. As long as America has a democratic system, there needs to be a jury as well.

Elizabeth Evans – Waynesville High School

One of the founding fathers, Patrick Henry, once said, "A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience are incompatible with freedom." A majority of Americans would wholeheartedly agree with this statement: A citizen of the United States should undoubtedly be allotted to receive ethical, moral, and fair treatment not only from the public itself, but also the government. This belief is so precious to the American people, that millions are willing to put their lives on the line every day to defend this honorable notion. Why then, does this civil liberty appear to be unsupported in the very heart of the justice system, the court of the law?
Judges are considered honorable, jurors impartial, and prosecutors in pursuit of justice. Yet the defendant, the person whose rights and life are held in question, is presumed guilty. Not only does this defy the maxim, "Innocent until proven guilty," but also raises inquiries in regard to civil rights and liberties. When a juror enters the courtroom with presumptuous notions of the defendant's guilt, the right to an "impartial jury" of peers is disregarded. Every individual as a citizen of the United States and as a fellow human being deserves to be evaluated based on evidence and information presented only over the course of a trial. Outside of the court, discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, and cultural belief is considered despicable. Yet within the court building, these rights of social and personal justice are eliminated.
For a single juror to have a predetermined verdict of a defendant is categorically unconstitutional and goes as far as to suggest the motions of going through a fair trial, as determined by the values of due process, are unnecessary. Whether this ludicrous idea is due to influence of the media, personal belief, or the simple fact that the defendant is brought up on charges is irrelevant: This act of judgment is, and always will be, wrong. The Constitution was established upon the values of integrity, morality, and equality for all citizens. If a single misrepresentation of these principles is found, does it not negate other civil liberties also guaranteed by this instrumental document? In a country created on the premise of universal justice, it is absolutely essential to uphold this ideal. Therefore, the hypocritical double standard represented in the courtroom in regard to the defendant is completely unacceptable, as these preconceived notions of guilt are unsupported by the United States government and the Constitution. As another founding father, Samuel Adams, said, "Neither the wisest Constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt."

Hannah Turpin – Lebanon High School

The idea of the preservation of innocence until proven guilty is not a modern idea. It is not even a unique concept of American democracy. With roots tracing back to sixth century ancient Rome, the fundamental right of the presumption of innocence is so powerful that the United States Constitution has three amendments supporting it. The United States' legal system revolves around "innocent until proven guilty." Because of this essential point, the preconceived notions of jurors entering a court of law degrade the proper order of law and undermine my civil liberties.

While the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" does not explicitly appear in our Constitution, the concepts of due process, an impartial jury and equal protection from the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee a citizen's civil liberties. As a United States citizen, these constitutional guarantees are my safeguard. A jaded jury weakens my protection if I am accused of a crime. Jurors, the representatives of the American public, make a system of a select few lawyers and judges more egalitarian, and ideally make the judicial process fairer, to uphold the democratic values on which the United States was founded. A jury with pre-conceived notions of those involved in the case destroys this balance.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "…when the press is free and every man can read, all is safe." However, as important the role of the media is in informing the public, it can also play a very negative role in the fair and impartial proceedings of a trial. Unfortunately, the media has a reputation at times for convicting the accused before a trial has even begun. For example, in the Casey Anthony trial, the task of finding an impartial panel of jurors was next to impossible after the portrayal of the accused in the media. The media should play a role in informing the public, but not at the cost of creating a less than impartial jury.

The view of preserving innocence has such a stronghold on the proceedings of cases in the United States that jurors cannot convict a defendant if there is even "reasonable doubt." The promises proclaimed in the Constitution are so imperative that even one dissenting opinion could change the outcome of a trial. A jury must believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that an accused person is guilty before a verdict may be decided. A jury with preconceived opinions obliterates this important standard, therefore infringing upon my civil liberties and the protection of all defendants.

Jurors are a vital component in our judicial system. Established to bring a balance and representation of the public to a trial, the jury and their fair and impartial opinions are essential to proper proceedings. When jurors enter a courtroom with preconceived notions, the fundamental protection of "innocent until proven guilty" is debased. The Constitution can only protect my civil liberties and the rights of the accused so long as its citizens concur to carry out the promising words in the proper manner.

Jessica Gibson – Kings High School

Innocent until proven guilty, a human right found in Article 11 of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights, is a right that our society feverishly supports. However, many jurors contradict this statement by asking themselves, "I wonder what that person did?" By asking this question they are presuming that the accused is guilty, not innocent. This is in violation of this most basic of human rights. This question skews the jurors' view of the case and the defendant(s).

When involved in a court case the jurors are expected to have no bias towards any aspect of the case; however, assumption of the guilt of the defendant leads to conformation bias. They will focus on the negative or suspicious evidence surrounding the accused in order to confirm that they are indeed guilty. Conformation bias will also cause them to overlook evidence that supports the defendant's claims of innocence. It may also cause jurors to interpret evidence that supports the defendant's innocence in such a way that would make the evidence support his/her guilt.

This warped thought process will deprive the accused of the right to a fair trial by jury, a right that Article 7 of the United States Constitution guarantees. If a jury is looking to prove the defendant's guilt, they will more likely than not find them guilty. This would be a complete violation of the defendant's right to a fair trial by jury.

The question that arises for many when discussing such a phenomenon is: How can this affect our civil liberties? The answer is simple. The root cause of why the juror may think this question in the first place may stem from a civil issue such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. For example, a juror who views Mexicans as illegal immigrants will be more likely to assume a Mexican defendant guilty. Even economic status may affect how a defendant is perceived; a wealthy defendant is more likely to be viewed as innocent intently than a poor homeless defendant. Although these issues should be rooted out when selecting a juror, some jurors who view certain groups of society negatively may slip by.

Preconceived notions of a defendant's guilt will most often lead to their declaration of guilt. There may be many innocent people behind bars or in some sort of trouble simply because the jury asked themselves, "I wonder what that person did?" rather than, "I wonder what that innocent person is charged with?" This assumption of guilt violates the defendant's rights and civil liberties. Every citizen should be aware of this kind of thinking whenever they are serving as a jury member to help ensure a fair trial and that no innocent person is declared guilty.