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Originally, though, jurors were selected for what they knew. Like democracy, the isosceles triangle and the cheesecake, trial by jury is an idea of the Greeks, though the Greek juries of up to 2,000 members sometimes turned into a mob, e.g., condemning Socrates to death on dubious charges of impiety and "corruption of the young." The Anglo-American tradition of the jury actually derives, according to many scholars, mainly from the 9th century Carolingian inquisitio, or demand for information, in which the king authorized local officials to round up citizens and compel them to testify. Hence the word juror, from the Latin word to swear. But criminal guilt was often still determined somewhat haphazardly in trial by combat or trial by ordeal. Only in the 12th century did King Henry II start sending out judges to preside over groups of local citizens who were commanded to report on any recent crimes in their neighborhood. In later years, the accusations of these original grand juries were submitted to a petit jury, which was often locked up without food or water until it reached a verdict.
No one has ever accused the jury system of being efficient. It wastes considerable time, effort and money to explain everything to the twelve citizens in the box. Indeed, a study released in June showed that the average juror understands only about half of the judge's instructions. For their services, the nation's jurors are paid $200 million a year, and their absence from work costs the nation an estimated $1 billion.
Most courtroom lawyers, however, hasten to defend the jury system. One major reason is that they are dubious about leaving all decisions to judges, particularly those chosen by big-city political machines. "The other alternative is to get a bunch of blue-ribbon professors up there, and that's baloney," says a veteran trial attorney in Chicago. Adds another Chicago lawyer: "If you end up with a professional arbitrator, he tends to cut the baby down the middle."
The divergence between different methods of reaching a verdict is actually not overwhelming. About 80% of the time, according to one authoritative study, judge and jury agree on the verdict. When they disagree in civil trials, experts say, it is usually because jurors sympathize with a plaintiffs argument against a wealthy defendant or else because a borderline disagreement could reasonably go either way. When there is disagreement in a criminal case, when reasonable doubt becomes an element in the verdict, the jury is six times more likely to acquit. Says one Washington prosecutor: "Juries have the luxury of rendering what they consider a social judgment."
In some cases, as in the prosecution of marijuana smokers, juries will simply ignore a law that they feel is unrealistic, and occasionally the law is accordingly updated. Sometimes, the jury exercises this right of