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When Yale University humanities lecturer Norma Thompson received a notice for jury duty, she planned to catch up on her reading for a few hours at the courthouse before returning to campus. After all, Thompson reasoned, most potential jurors are dismissed. Furthermore, she believed neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would choose an intellectual for a jury when ignorance (of the specific case, of the world at large) seems to prevail as the selection criterion. So imagine Thompson’s surprise on Nov. 9, 2001, when the prosecutor and the defense attorney for a murder trial questioned her as a potential juror. Then, imagine her further surprise when she and three other Yale faculty members ended up on the jury. Thompson realized she had been thinking all wrong about using Yale professors on jury panels. But, as she says in her book, Unreasonable Doubt: Circumstantial Evidence and an Ordinary Murder in New Haven: “It did not seem to matter so much for jury selection what your job was, provided that you could afford to interrupt your schedule for a week or so. It did not seem to matter so much what you knew about the case, either, or whether you had heard of the lawyers. What mattered was how you answered the follow-up question — would your knowledge prevent you from being impartial in the case at hand?” Would deliberations run smoothly? she wondered. Thompson decided to adopt an optimistic attitude despite her grave doubts. With four professors presumably trained in logic among the jurors “recruited to seek justice beyond a reasonable doubt,” why not feel optimistic? Thompson writes, “Little did I know what kind of justice we might find and what kind might elude us.” Although Anthony Bazier had been arrested for the 1998 murder of Nancy McCloskey in New Haven, Conn., convicting him proved impossible. An earlier trial had ended in a hung jury. From what little Thompson could pick up about that trial, a key witness had become angry about a rude prosecutor and refused to offer the damning testimony the state expected to present. After hearing the evidence in the second trial, Thompson found it easy to vote for conviction. As foreman, she believed she could lead her 11 fellow citizens to a quick verdict. Wrong again. The first count: Seven for conviction, two for acquittal, three undecided. Three weeks later, the two jurors ready to acquit on grounds of reasonable doubt had not budged. Another mistrial. When the judge met with the jurors to dismiss them, Thompson lost the composure she had maintained throughout the lengthy, emotional deliberations. “I froze in my place and couldn’t say a word; the lump in my throat was prohibitive . . . I was so ashamed for us, so sorry for Nancy and for everyone in her unhappy family. I felt that we had betrayed many good and responsible people, from the prosecutor to the school kids, implausibly sitting through our trial.” As Thompson left the courthouse, a juror she had originally disliked “came toward me like a torpedo and embraced me fiercely.” She said, “I want to tell you that I respect you more than any woman I have ever met, for what you did in there.” Thompson could hold back no longer: “The trickle of tears had begun and wouldn’t stop for days . . . We all went home. It was a nice day, warm for so late in the season. There was nothing to do but to go to Paris after all. Forget justice.” Thompson finishes that story about halfway through the book. Next she takes a different approach. Unable to drive the failed jury deliberations from her mind, Thompson recalls the Stephen Vincent Benét short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, in which, she says, “the Devil formed his jury by combing through the pages of American history to find the most odious characters imaginable.” Thompson decides “the reverse tactic might serve me well, to help me sort through the large themes of crime and punishment, theory and reality, and knowledge and uncertainty that were still preoccupying me.” So she turns to Herodotus, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Jane Austen, and William Faulkner, among others, hoping to imagine how they would have performed as jurors. The academic exercise might seem esoteric, but Thompson feels pulled toward some sort of resolution. What begins as an exercise to comfort a distressed mind turns out to resonate. And when Thompson says Jane Austen and her historical colleagues would have voted in favor of conviction, I am convinced.
Steve Weinberg has written about the criminal justice system for decades. He is a book author and a magazine freelancer living in Columbia, Mo.

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