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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

I Think He Should Walk Out Of This Court a Free Hotel

It all starts with one official looking piece of mail; you groan, swear a few times, but there’s no way out it. You’ll be sitting in the courthouse for at least one day, musing on whether profess yourself a bigot, or just simply say ‘hey, I know that guy.’ But ultimately you just sit there fidgeting with your numbered card, hoping that you look just undesirable enough to elude your duty as an American.

D. Graham Burnett, in the newly released A Trial by Jury, chronicles his own trip into the jury box. The reason he gives for penning this bit of non-fiction is the lack of attention paid to this limb of our judicial branch. And, he’s right. Aside from Paully Shore, our media tends to focus on the police who investigate the crimes and the attorneys who prosecute the criminals: O. J. Simpson, Perry Mason, Bill Curtis, everything written by John Grisham, the limelight is always occupied by the trial. The jury stands silent witness, files quietly into deliberation, and pops out again bearing Justice. The last of the mystery cults: where the magic of our fair and balanced system is performed.

Burnett and his crew of random strangers stand peer to Monte Milcray, on trial for the murder of Randolf Cuffee in the Borough of Manhattan, Part 24 of the New York State Supreme Court. His defense, in a Bonaduccian tale, is that he defended himself against an attempted rape after the transvestite Cuffee revealed his deception. There are holes in Milcray’s story, further complicated by the fact that Cuffee was stabbed twenty-five times and mostly in the back, but the strange array of confused stories told by several Greenwich Village, gender-ambivalent witnesses and a half-hearted performance from the prosecutor makes doubt more reasonable.

The book is structured with verdict first, trial second, and the deliberation process last. It’s not a mystery, or a 12 Angry Men act of truth arrived at by deductive reasoning. It’s more a demonstration of confusion and uncertainty; how whole stories can never be known absolutely, how the law may not always facilitate justice, and how what seems like justice cannot be exacted when doubt cannot be expelled. And how likes, dislikes, flashes of emotion, and personal competition can play as much into how reasonable a doubt can become.

The whole epistemological quandary that we usually leave behind closed doors, is interesting to watch unfold. Interesting, however, doesn’t necessarily mean good. Burnett, PhD., author of an academic work on intellectual history, and poetry afficionado, is pretentious, annoying, and often difficult to like. He brings a fennel loaf and blood oranges to his sequestration, knowing that local fare wont suit his tastes, and, as a historian, adds a lot of these self-indulgent details that future historians will cherish as primary source material.

But even that makes you think. We ask twelve average people, personal baggage and all, on nothing but ordinary experience, to play the role of Fate, to someone unlucky enough or irresponsible enough, or maybe even evil enough to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.