A few months ago I received a jury duty summons from Los Angeles County. I was unhappy that I’d be out of the lab for several days if selected, but excited to have my first personal look into our legal system.
For those of you who have not yet been summoned, I’ll share with you a general description of my experience. The first step is to wait. I sat in a room with a few hundred other people for five hours before I, along with 60 other people, were called to a courtroom to begin the selection process.
Inside the courtroom sat the potential jurors, the prosecution/defense, the suspect, judge, bailiff and court reporter. They observed while I and the other potential jurors swore to answer all questions truthfully. Twenty of us, (everyone is assigned and referred to by a number. I was ten) were called to the jury box. The case involved a driving under the influence (DUI) charge and one by one the jurors were required to answer a series of general questions (Do you know anyone in law enforcement? What is your occupation? Do you have any strong feelings about the charges? Etc.). When asked my occupation I responded that I was a graduate student in chemistry.
After the general questions both the prosecution and defense asked additional questions, some directed to particular individuals. The questions attempted to uncover the jurors preconceived notions about the suspect and crime. One question asked by the defense sparked my attention. The attorney asked, “Does anyone know how breathalyzer works?”
Although a simple concept that can be grasped by any general chemistry student, the most common portable breathalyzer is actually a very clever use of electrochemistry. Inside of the device is an electrochemical cell operating at a constant potential:
At the cathode, oxygen is reduced in the presents of water to produce hydroxide ions.
O2 + 2H2O + 4e- –> 4OH-
At the anode, the ethanol in your breath is oxidized to acetic acid.
CH3CH2OH + 4OH- –> H3CCOOH + 3H2O + 4e-
Because this is a well defined 4 electron process, the current produced can be used to determine the amount of ethanol in your breath.
In response to the defense attorney’s question, I raised my hand, prepared to explain the chemistry behind the device. Unexpectedly, the lawyer turned to me and, as if already aware of my answer, dismissively said, “I will get back to you later.”
After 10 minutes the defense lawyer returned to me and delivered the following two questions:
1) “It is the responsibility of a juror to leave any expertise at the door and make their decisions based only on what is presented by witnesses called during the trial. This also includes not discussing your external knowledge with fellow jurors. Can you, even if you know the testimony of one of the experts is wrong, make your decision based only on what is presented?”
My answer: Yes. (Internal monologue: I can but I would lose sleep at night knowing I allowed a potentially innocent person to be punished.)
2) “While hearing a testimony that contains information you know to be false you might instinctively think “that is wrong and this is why.” Can you stop yourself from having these thoughts?”
My answer: No. (Internal monologue: Is that even possible?)
Following a meeting between the judge, prosecution and defense, the first three jurors were dismissed. I was one of them, along with a man who could not speak English and a woman whose best friend had been killed by a drunk driver.
In retrospect, it appears that I was dismissed from the jury because I am a chemist/scientist. Despite not being selected, my jury summons provided a thought provoking experience and left me with several questions. I will now pose these questions to you, my fellow members of the scientific community.
1) Could you convict someone of a crime knowing that it is based on incorrect testimony?
2) We have spent years training our brains to critically analyze everything we think and hear. Can you shut that off on request?
3) In a system where those who testify swear under oath to tell the truth, is it hypocritical to expect those making the decision to suppress what they know to be true?
4) Why wouldn’t you want additional expertise on a panel of individuals deciding the outcome of a trial? Aren’t they the most qualified and as a result most likely to make the correct decision?