A Trial by Jury

A Trial by Jury

by D. Graham Burnett


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When Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett answered his jury duty summons, he expected to spend a few days catching up on his reading in the court waiting room. Instead, he finds himself thrust into a high-pressure role as the jury foreman in a Manhattan trial. There he comes face to face with a stunning act of violence, a maze of conflicting evidence, and a parade of bizarre witnesses. But it is later, behind the closed door of the jury room, that he encounters the essence of the jury experience — he and eleven citizens from radically different backgrounds must hammer consensus out of confusion and strong disagreement. By the time he hands over the jury’s verdict, Burnett has undergone real transformation, not just in his attitude toward the legal system, but in his understanding of himself and his peers.

Offering a compelling courtroom drama and an intimate and sometimes humorous portrait of a fractious jury, A Trial by Jury is also a finely nuanced examination of law and justice, personal responsibility and civic duty, and the dynamics of power and authority between twelve equal people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375727511
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 270,463
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

D. Graham Burnett is a historian of science and the author of Masters of All They Surveyed. After graduating from Princeton University, he was a Marshall Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1999, Chicago’s Newberry Library awarded him the Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography. A 1999–2000 Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, he has taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, and is currently an assistant professor in the history department at Princeton.

Read an Excerpt

How It Ended

I have on my desk at this moment twelve five-by-seven ruled index cards. On each of them the same two words appear: "not guilty." Eight are written in pen, four in pencil. On eight of them the words appear along a single line, on two the words are perpendicular to the ruling, and on two they are scrawled diagonally (one of these last has been written on an inverted card, turned so that the red top line and margin are at the bottom). Three are in all caps, three have only the initial letters capitalized, three are all lowercase, two others show the "N" capitalized but not the "g." In the last of them the word "not" appears in all caps, but the word "guilty" is all lowercase.

By dint of these varied inscriptions, made in silence in a few tense moments, Monte Virginia Milcray walked out of Part 24 of the New York State Supreme Court, got into the elevator, and descended to the cold wetness of Centre Street a little before noon on February 19, 2000. I preceded him by several minutes, getting into a cab with my duffel bag and riding the dozen blocks home to my wife, with whom I had not spoken in four days. The cards were folded in the breast pocket of my navy blazer. I was crying.

The twelve cards represent the potent residue of the most intense sixty-six hours of my life, a period during which I served as the foreman of a jury charged to decide whether Monte Milcray was guilty of murdering Randolph Cuffee. During that period, twelve individuals of considerable diversity engaged in a total of twenty-three hours of sustained conversation in a small, bare room. We ran the gamut of group dynamics: a clutch of strangers yelled, cursed, rolled on the floor, vomited, whispered, embraced, sobbed, and invoked both God and necromancy. There were moments when the scene could have passed for a graduate seminar in political theory, others that might have been a jujitsu class. A few came straight out of bedlam. Before it was over, we had spent three nights and four days continuously attended by armed guards (who extended their affable surveillance into all lavatories); we had been shuttled to outlying hotels, into rooms with disconnected phones and sinks in which we washed our clothes; we had watched one juror pulled from our midst and rushed to the hospital (a physical collapse, caused by some combination of missing medication and the crucible of the deliberations), another make a somewhat halfhearted effort to escape (he was apprehended), and a third insist on her right to contact her own lawyer to extricate her from the whole affair (she was threatened with contempt).

During significant stretches in this trying time, we considered two weeks of testimony in The People of New York v. Monte Virginia Milcray and struggled to understand two things: what happened in Cuffee's apartment on the night of August 1, 1998, and what responsibilities we had as citizens and jurors.

It is my intention to tell this story as best I can. I am doing so for several reasons, among them two in particular: first, because there are things to be learned from the way events unfolded (about people, about the law, about justice, about truth and how we know it), and, second, because the jury room is a most remarkable--and largely inaccessible--space in our society, a space where ideas, memories, virtues, and prejudices clash with the messy stuff of the big, bad world. We expect much of this room, and we think about it less often than we probably should.

Before I embark on this task, however, a few words of warning. There are really two stories here: that of the case itself--a trial story, a courtroom story, a drama focused around a violent death; and that of the deliberations--the story of what happened behind the closed door of the jury room. Each of these stories is complex, and they are of course entangled. I set out to write this book in order to tell the latter, but to do so I must rehearse elements of the former. Let me be clear, though: it is by no means my intention to retry the case in a personal memoir. The case is closed. In writing this book, I have made no additional investigations of the events at issue, I have not revisited the records of the trial, and I have not interviewed any of the people involved. All of that was tempting, and would certainly have been interesting, but my sense has been that to embark on such digging would have been, inevitably, to put the trial on trial, to lose myself again in the twisting labyrinth of unrecoverable fact that we negotiated in the jury room. I would have begun to extend that labyrinth, to open new rooms and passages. And this was not the aim. I am sure there is more to the maze than I have seen (when is there not?), but by keeping notes during the weeks of the trial, I laid a thread along the path we took together as jurors, and that is the thread I will follow here.

A further disclaimer: what I am writing is my own story of the deliberations. I have no idea what those who shared the experience with me would make of this document should they pick it up. Or let me speak more frankly. I am sure each of them would contest my story in different ways--argue, perhaps, I did not represent them rightly; assert that this part over here was not that way; draw to my attention things I have forgotten. If one learns anything from a criminal trial under the adversary system, it is that sincere folk can differ vehemently about events, and that there is seldom any easy way to figure out what actually went on.

At different moments while writing this account--much of it longhand in a notebook during the weeks following the acquittal--I have closed my eyes and tried to imagine what the small, bare jury room looked like from the perspective of the others. We sat around the same table, but the room must have appeared slightly different to each. I try to see in my mind's eye how things looked from the other side--the door on one's right, the winter windows at one's back.

That is where Dean Kossler sat. What would he think of this narrative? Dean--the big, solid, former bull-riding cowboy turned vacuum-cleaner repairman. Dean--the six-foot-three-inch born-again God-fearing veteran of the U.S. armed forces. When I first noticed him, in the early days of jury selection, he was spitting tobacco juice behind the radiator by the elevator during a break. He had thin brown hair slicked back and a manly mustache; he wore a weath- ered pair of work boots. A blowhard contractor of some sort, I assumed, and I pegged him, without much thought, as a poster boy for Susan Faludi's tragic tale of the white working-class male--big chest, big gut, big debt. I called him, irreverently, "the Faludiman" in my notes. What did I know? Before the trial ended, he had blown my stereotype (indeed, any stereotype) wide open.

What would he say about all this? About what I have written?

Or Felipe Rodriguez? I originally wrote to myself that he seemed "sweet and shy." He giggled often, wore a large number of braided string bracelets, seemed lost in his giant orange parka. I came to loathe him. By the end, he had thrown much into question for me: not least, my confidence in jury trials. Are there some citizens not clearly able to distinguish daytime television from daily life? Apparently there are. Should they participate in deciding on the freedom of another person? Maybe. I doubt he remembers things as I do.

And there were others, of course. Leah Tennent, the self-possessed and buoyantly bohemian young woman with whom I read Wallace Stevens poems in the back of the bus. Olivelle "Vel" Tover, the youthful, clear-eyed black woman with an elaborate braided coiffure who studied a manual of purgative and rejuvenating fasts in the waiting area; we discussed together the value of self-denial, of cleansing the body through the strictest diets. Rachel Patis, the solid, quiet, unflappable West Indian woman who volunteered at her local police precinct and wore blouses trimmed with lace; she moved slowly, sat very still, seemed like an older lady. Patricia Malley, "Pat," the dyed-blonde tough-girl in the tight black jeans who spoke loudly and much, often well. She seemed instantly animated in Dean's company, adjusted her eyeliner, laughed easily and with gusto.

And so on: James Lanes (who went by Jim), Jessica Pol- lero, Suzy O'Mear, Paige Barri, and Adelle Benneth. This last, like me, was a professor of history. More improbable still, she focused, as I do, on the history of science, and had, like me, a particular interest in exploration and travel narratives (though she worked on the medieval period and I on the modern). A striking coincidence, all this.

All together, then, we were two professional histo- rians (Adelle and I), two ad-copy writers (Jessica and Jim), a globe-trotting Gen-X software developer (Leah), an industrial-vacuum-cleaner repairman with a rodeo tattoo who moonlighted in car-stereo installation (Dean), an interior decorator (Paige), an "independent marketing executive" and part-time security guard (Rachel), an actress (Pat, but was she also a bartender?), the manager of certain commercial enterprises owned by the "Mattress King of Miami" (Vel), and a couple of others (Felipe, Suzy) of less clear occupation. Twelve citizens, twelve different characters.

The deliberations were theirs as much as mine. This story, however, is mine alone. Like a witness, I am fallible; I shall surely misremember things. And even if my memory were perfect, what retelling, in a string of words, is not a distressing distortion of the cluttered thickness of things as they happen?

Trials are about this.

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Trial by Jury 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
kaionvin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A nonfiction account of Burnett's own experience serving in the jury of a murder trial, this book brings up some interesting ideas- a nice read if you're interested in matters of law and the justice system. The idea that merely and incredibly being citizens and alive as people somehow makes us necessary and qualified to judge someone's guilt or innocence is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system in the US, and yet makes one wonder how that comes about. Here, Burnet presents that the experience itself shapes you itself into what it needs you to be. Before, the jury members didn't really understand justice and law and how they intersect in the human world. By participating, by not allowing themselves to cow in the face of burden of justice, they began to understand.Style-wise, I think Burnett is accurate in calling himself an academe (alright, he's a snobby, unrealistic, romantic and verbose), and he often falls into the mistake of waxing poetic about the situations and shaping them mentally into tableuxs of meaning instead of letting events speak for themselves to the audience. But he doesn't make the mistake of trying to make it much more than his personal subjective interpretation and memory of his time on the jury, and for that I am glad.He himself compares it to 12 Angry Men (great movie). And while it is certainly more realistic (it is after all, reality) in its turns, it suffers in comparison, in that Burnett neglects to really flesh out the 'characters' of his fellow jurors. A verdict, after all, is not one journey, but the segment of momentary convergence of many journeys- and by neglecting to interview his fellow jurors post-trial, Burnett fails to explain the jury's reasoning. I think if he actually made more of an effort into understanding other people, this book could've been better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well done. It is like you are in a real life jury.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The premise of the book is intrigueing: take a highly educated young man and stick him in a New York jury on a murder trial and see what happens. What the prosecutor was likely hoping for when he selected the author for the jury was the same thing the reader has the right to expect: a well reason analysis of the facts of the case and the juror's role in the trial of a sordid murder. The prosecutor was likely as disappointed as this reader. The narrative wonders and loses its focus early. The author does draw some interesting analogies and does offer some interesting analysis within the context of his life's work. His discussion of jury nullification was intriguing but frustrating. It was cut short long before it should have been. The climax of the book, when the author and his fellow jurors realize that the law can only be cautious, not perfect is truly captivating but not for the reasons the author intends. In the end the author drafts a note to the judge shrinking from his true responsibilities blaming the system at large for his own inability to make a truly difficult decision. The book reflects the denial the author lives with, and the delusions the jury created to escape their responsiblity-- its form and substance are just as diaphenous.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never did like the jury system, it's a good system on paper but terrible by execution. Jury of my peers-give me a break! Any way this book does VERY accurately dislpay what goes on in jury rooms; the attitudes, the preconceived notions, the watered down and hidden racism and (oh yeah) the facts. The fact is none of us are close to perfect. There we are 12 very imperfect people in a place none of them want to be chrarged with deciding the fate of a life they probably could care less about. READ THIS BOOK!
Guest More than 1 year ago
For years I have supported the 'fully informed jury' efforts. And, strongly believe a jury must judge not only the accused, but the law. This story documents jury incompetence because local authorities can control their access to information and knowledge. Here in California, I belong to an organization that is currently promoting a change in law that would strengthen the State Grand Jury process. Over and above criminal grand juries, our local grand jury processes are also impacted by local politics. For information on our proposal, go to: http://caag.state.ca.us/initiatives/index.htm Would appreciate any input from the author or others regarding the efficiency of their local state grand juries. Yes, there are 'perils' at every level in government and particularly the judicial. Ann Klink Vacaville, CA