Five angry men

Reforming juries in honor cases is unnecessary and would ensure Committee members have undue say

Previous columns defending a proposal to reform honor juries have criticized student jurors for being unengaged, easily duped by guilty defendants who lie their way through the system, and reluctant to convict out of not wanting to impose the single sanction. The proposed jury reform would compose honor juries of five honor committee members, rather than the twelve random students that most defendants currently choose.

I don’t know what has happened at the overwhelming majority of honor trials that are held in secret, but I do know what happened at the open trial I attended. Two students were accused of cheating on a biology exam. Despite the gravity of the situation everyone in the room was cool and professional throughout. The Jurors were quite attentive and active in questioning the witnesses, 11 of them asking at least three questions each. At the end of the trial, the defendants seemed to be guilty, and the jury returned a guilty verdict. None of the criticisms of student jurors were present, so how do we know that they are accurate? We have only the opinions of the honor committee members themselves, the very people asking us to imbue them with additional power, because nobody else sees the trials or the evidence.

Aside from the limited evidence supporting the proposed jury reform, there are significant problems. The point of an honor trial is to figure out the truth, not to convict anyone accused, so if composing honor juries of committee members served that goal, one would expect innocent defendants to prefer juries of committee members. Yet in the three semesters for which reports are available on the honor committee’s website, not a single defendant has chosen a jury composed entirely of committee members. It is not hard to guess why. Who would want to be judged by people who have chosen to devote a significant amount of their time to punishing liars, cheaters, and thieves? Who would want to be judged by people who have seen several trials before, and may therefore be less attentive than a new juror with a fresh pair of eyes?
Further, the significance of an act of lying, cheating, or stealing is at the heart of an honor offense. One of the elements of an honor offense, which a jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict, is that open tolerance of the act would be inconsistent with the community of trust. Is stealing a can of coke from a vending machine that threatening to the community of trust? Answering “present” for an absent classmate? Presenting fake ID to buy alcohol? These are questions that the honor system entrusts to randomly selected student jurors, and to which those jurors are entitled to answer “no” if they choose. The proposed jury reform would remove them from random student jurors, and place them in the hands of individuals who have dedicated significant amounts of their college careers to punishing liars, cheaters, and thieves. And there is historical evidence that this distinction matters. In 1944 the honor committee declared false mustering — there were a lot of naval cadets training here during the war — an honor offense, despite the student body having voted by a ratio of 14 to 1 the previous year that it should not be. So placing the determination of the significance of an act of lying, cheating, or stealing in their hands ought to be something we would all object to.

A final problem with the proposed jury reform derives not from who the jurors would be, but from how many there would be. Reducing the number from 12 to 5 would significantly reduce the diversity of a jury. The probability of finding a fraternity or sorority member on a jury of five random University students is only 67%, versus 93% on a jury of 12. And if the allegation is that the student plagiarized from fraternity archives, having someone in the jury room who understands how fraternities work might be important. The probability if finding an African American student on a jury of five random University students is only 34%, versus 63% for a 12 person jury. And if the allegation is that the student lied about being racially profiled, that might be important.

When it comes time to vote in the spring, students will likely be presented with one up or down vote on two different reforms to honor, jury reform and a much more promising informed retraction option. In order to give students the opportunity to vote separately on these two reforms, to approve informed retraction while rejecting jury reform, we must petition to get informed retraction on the ballot separately. I have created a Facebook group, Students for Informed Retraction, to facilitate that petition. I hope to see you there.

Frank Bellamy is a student in the Law School.

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