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A TRIAL BY JURY by D. Graham Burnett

A TRIAL BY JURY

By D. Graham Burnett

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-41303-0
Publisher: Knopf

An affecting meditation on jury duty laid out with the dexterity of a police procedural.

When intellectual historian and Princeton professor Burnett (Masters of All They Surveyed, not reviewed) receives a juror card during a winter sabbatical, he welcomes it as an improbable vacation into the urban jungle, a whimsy he is disabused of by the coiling process of jury selection alone. The judicial lottery, along with his own scruples, lands him in Part 24 of the New York Supreme Court, its military and religious underpinnings richly evoked, for the murder trial of a young fiancé who stabbed a surreptitious date after she turned out to be an unexpectedly domineering transsexual. After listening in open court for several days and spending four more sequestered as foreman with his co-jurors, Burnett gains a more worldly-wise appreciation of the power of the state and the state of things. The episode, he writes, has been a gift that keeps on costing. The gift is compellingly shared with insights that reveal his own self (mindful, intelligent, occasionally pedantic) and the other jurors, all locked in the therapeutic anarchy and political jockeying of their closed room. There, the ancient conflict between legal and moral justice plays out, leading toward a remarkable display of coordinated gravitas at the reading of the verdict. After the trial, evidence highly corroborative to the verdict comes to light; however, Burnett laments, “welcome as the news was, it ransomed our verdict only by bankrupting its logic.” He advocates the wisdom of keeping large legal questions open while making decisions based on delimited criteria.

Like having one’s day in court, reading this revelatory account is a rite of passage that could make any Law and Order hound or legal eagle a more reasonable person. (2 diagrams, not seen)