Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Jury is Out

"Not in my country"

Not long ago a Turkish friend and I were watching a classic American film, "Twelve Angry Men." If you haven't seen this 1957 film, it is quite interesting and worth a viewing.

The story is about a court case, but, in fact, we are never actually shown the court room. All of the action takes place in the tiny jury-deliberation room. Initially the case seems clear-cut. The accused, a young man from an unspecified minority, is obviously guilty of murdering his father. The evidence is overwhelming and there are even witnesses. But one of the jurors is unconvinced. As the film continues, we find that one by one the remaining eleven jurors, despite their prejudices and failings, come to re-evaluate the evidence to arrive at justice. (One is left to assume the verdict is not guilty but that scene is not shown.)

All of the performances are superb. The lone dissenter played by Henry Fonda is utterly charismatic and heroic. It's a great film but I hadn't intended this post to be a film review.

My friend enjoyed the film but wasn't particularly impressed by the underlying message. He dismissed the idea of a jury system as a kind of fantasy dreamed up Americans.

"Don't you think a jury system is better?" I asked him.

"Not in my country." he replied without any trace of doubt. "I don't want some uneducated villager deciding important things like court cases."

Frankly my liberal sensibilities were shocked by this attitude but I had heard a lot of similar things in the past. I always wrote them off as being a kind of intellectual snobbishness. Now, however, I am often feel I understand what they mean.

Identity and Values

Every countries has its invisible cultural divides. In the United States, you have the East Coast and the West Coast. The North and the South. And similarly, Turkey has always had two faces, the East, which is, in many ways, heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture and the West part, which owes a lot to European ideals. When a native of Istanbul hears about honor killings in the east of the country, they don't seem particularly surprised. In their opinion, it's only to be expected. And often you hear a long time resident of the urban areas of the West say things like, "We never had this problem until so many people from the villages came to the city." Mind you, I am not saying it's accurate but it is definitely the perception.

You might conclude that, in some ways, the present political situation in Turkey is actually the values of the eastern parts of Turkey attempting to dominant the more secular and Western (in every sense) regions. A battle for the Turkish identity, you might say.

In a article, Why the Jury System Works, a former trial lawyer, G. Christopher Ritter explains the seven reasons why he believes the jury system is effective.

[One] reason the jury system works is that as much as we deride our jurors, we often have more in common with them than not. Indeed, jurors share with the parties, the witnesses, and the lawyers a level of wisdom and a set of common values that is a reflection of those held by the overall society. ...It is those shared understandings that allow the jurors to work together to come up with their verdicts.

Common values and shared understandings. This seems to be the key to understanding why so many Turks would not accept a jury-based justice system. There is a strong doubt whether the values are commonly held and shared.

The American jury system rests on  basic assumptions about human nature and society. The most important one is, of course, that people actually care about whether justice should prevail; that it is worth our time and effort to search for the truth. That facts are distinguishable from emotions and most important, that personal integrity would triumph over the potential for corruption.

Like a lot of things I observe in Turkey, I start out thinking one way and, after I sort it out as well as I am able, I find myself seeing things- in relation to my home country- in a completely different way than I started. It's one of the best things about being an expat, it is much harder for your long-held beliefs to go unchallenged.

As an American, I used to put a lot of faith in Egalitarianism, that is, that all humans, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, economic status, social status, and cultural heritage, are equal in fundamental worth or social status. I suppose I still do but not as much as I once did. I used to have a lot of faith in my fellow American not to be ruled by his prejudices and ignorance but allow common sense to decide the final decision.

When I see groups like Westboro Baptist Church holding up inflammatory signs at funerals, I think, where is their common empathy? Which values can I possibly share with these people? When I see people, like some of the members of the Tea Party, demand less taxes and cut nearly all social programs to help the poor, I think, are those really Americans? The overt racism, the ignorance, the absolute faith in a second-hand interpretation of religion, the implied threats of violence to achieve their aims. People whose opinions are based solely on the latest FoxNews broadcast or Glenn Beck radio show.

And, suddenly I find myself in complete sympathy with the Turkish disregard for a jury system. To think that those people might somehow serve on a jury, where the stakes could very well be life and death, it is frightening. How could you trust people like that to make fair decisions?


  1. A wonderfully incisive and fluid post, Nomad. One of your best, IMHO.

    I've been thinking not so much about justice and courts lately as the idea of democracy. Or rather, the construct or ideal of democracy. This hit on another angle I hadn't thought of yet.

  2. I've always enjoyed movies with, Henry Fonda.

    Unfortunately, our court system has been invaded and is so corrupt; it frightens people.

    I'm still one of those Perry Mason people. I want to believe again, in our legal system.


  3. @Stranger
    Thanks for the compliment. I think it's strange the way the things I see in Turkey so often tell me a lot about my homeland.

    There is one more thing I would add to this, though. Because Turks have so little trust in their fellow citizen to decide things, they tend to give a lot more responsibility to authority, compared to the American system. To keep such a system working, it also requires a certain degree of unquestioning acceptance of that authority.
    Instead of having a jury of one's peers, you have a judge (or a panel of judges) who are expected to be rather more fair.

  4. @anon
    I share your desire to have faith in the jury system. The alternative always seemed much worse.

  5. Bulent MurtezaogluMay 29, 2011 at 1:25 AM

    I think I understand what you are saying and you do say it well. Let me just say trusting judges may bring with it worse problems than trusting juries. You are right in feeling (if you do feel that, that is) that one somehow deserves to have some baseline expectations from one's peers. If the society has failed in that regard then the judiciary will probably not be spared from the damage. I just don't see how you can count on having good judges when you cannot count on having good neighbors.

    I watched 12 Angry Men on (single channel) Turkish state TV years ago. It was dubbed and dubbed well. It was one of those late night movies our state put on TV so we'd get a taste of what's out there. They put on Bergman movies and such too. I was once baffled what I saw some clearly pacifist movie with helmeted corpses of soldiers getting fished out of icy water -- not the kind of thing the state would like seen at that time (Cold War, pre-coup Turkey tho probably with CHP controlling TRT). It was late at night though, and probably a Sunday night.

    Anyway, the stuff above is not why I am commenting. There's an interesting inteview by Errol Morris of some Mob Lawyer. He talks about convincing juries of insane stuff. I'll link to the first port of three. I like Morris's stuff in general but is was one of the better ones.

  6. While it's likely that some people on a jury could have quite different values from mine, and I too would be nervous about having someone on my jury who believed in the Rapture (though I like to believe the voir dire would take care of the most extreme cases of insanity), it is certain that elected or appointed judges, particularly those with political aspirations, would have completely different values from mine.

    And maybe I have naive faith that people behave differently and perhaps more responsibly when they believe they're doing their civic duty. It seems wrong to deny people the right to participate in the system like that, no matter where they come from or what prejudices I may have about them.

  7. For many reasons, most of them historical, the entire concept of "civic duty" is somewhat askew in Turkey, generally speaking. I would say it is a civic duty to clean up after yourself when you decide to have a picnic in a park, for example, since the park belongs to everybody and not just to the government. That sounds a bit grumbling, I know.

    I've come to learn from living in Turkey one thing. It comes up in a thousand different ways but it is always applicable.


    If people are prepared to lie, to steal and to cheat, if people are going to be swayed by stupid unrelated things, if people do not take their votes seriously, then nobody can expect a fair and effective system. Whether it is a jury system or a judicial one, the individuals involved do not have integrity then everything quickly sinks into muck and some pretty horrendous miscarriages of justice are likely to occur.


Always great to hear from visitors to Nomadic View. What's on your mind?


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