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Our lost faith in the American murder trial

We live in an age when Americans are both captivated and disturbed by murder trials. The Netflix smash hit Making a Murderer went viral in late December as it chronicled the seemingly wrongful convictions of a Wisconsin man and his teenage nephew for the gruesome killing of a young photographer. The success of this documentary was hardly surprising in the wake of 2014’s Serial, the most popular podcast in history and winner of a Peabody Award. Millions listened intently to the story of a Baltimore youth who, despite significant cause for reasonable doubt, received a life sentence for the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend. The case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Floridian armed only with a pack of skittles, needed no documentary or podcast to become national news. The acquittal of his killer sparked predictable public outrage. And, of course, the steady succession of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police has led to numerous grand juries–if not always full-fledged trials–that garner headlines across the country. Americans are asking tough questions about the integrity of the police, detectives, and prosecutors involved in these trials. When considered in tandem, there seems to be something deeply amiss with the criminal justice system.

In fact, the country has exhibited these kinds of doubts before. The Dukes-Nutt affair illustrates in vivid terms our long history of disaffection from the institution of the jury trial. In the 1880s, two political figures in Pennsylvania, Nicholas Dukes and Adam Nutt, engaged in a lethal affray after Dukes confessed to seducing Nutt’s daughter. Such were her charms, Dukes insisted, she “would disarm the devil himself.” On a fateful Christmas Eve, Nutt was slain and Dukes indicted for murder. The national press castigated Dukes for his double sin of seduction and homicide. A vengeful nation waited for a jury to condemn him to the gallows. But when twelve of the defendant’s peers unexpectedly set Dukes free, the public reacted with hysteria. He fled from lynch mobs led by clergymen, attorneys, and newspaper editors. At a gathering of bloodthirsty citizens, one member of the bar declared that “the courts of law are inadequate to mete out justice,” adding, “we will be driven to take other measures.”

The Fayette County Courthouse where Dukes stood trial. Source: Franklin Ellis, A History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Philadelphia: Everts, 1882), 134a. Source: Franklin Ellis, A History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Philadelphia: Everts, 1882), 134a.
The Fayette County Courthouse where Dukes stood trial. Source: Franklin Ellis, A History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Philadelphia: Everts, 1882), 134a.

In a world that had lost faith in the jury trial system, Nutt’s eldest son, James, had good reason to believe that the country would celebrate any attempts at vigilante justice. Two months following Dukes’ acquittal, James lodged a fatal bullet in the heart of Adam Nutt’s killer. Overnight, James became a national hero, a symbol of justice that the law had failed to provide.

The persistence throughout history of public doubts about the justice system suggests that something perennial may be at play in our current moment of distrust: the flaws inherent to human nature. That is not to suggest that we be complacent in the face of police brutality or corrupt prosecutors. But the jury trial is a human institution, and as such, it has always embodied our shortcomings. Indeed, many longstanding rules of evidence for trials are concessions to the defects of human nature. The so-called “character rule” prohibits the prosecution from admitting evidence of a defendant’s poor character because of the strong instinct among jurors to punish people who seem generally immoral even when evidence of the specific crime in question may be lacking. Recognition of human bias also gave rise to a rule that parties must submit physical evidence in court only if that evidence is connected to witness testimony. It is our nature to reflexively attach legitimacy to objects–the raw physicality of the evidence tends to trump our deliberative faculties.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison famously wrote. In the Constitutional Convention, Madison aimed to design a government that would serve as a check on the worst tendencies of human nature. But even as the jury trial seeks to counterbalance our human failings, still, it inescapably reflects them.

Image credit: James Nutt guns down Nicholas Dukes. Source: The National Police Gazette: New York, June 30, 1883, 9. (Both images courtesy of the author)

Recent Comments

  1. Joe Burn

    A thoughtful take on our obsessions and failings as a society. Do countries with judge based systems have rules that tend to counterbalance the flaws of judges?

  2. Ryan N

    Excellent post. How do you see exceptions to our justice system in the wake of the war on terror influencing the system itself in the future?

  3. […] Oxford University Press explains that Americans have lost faith in the justice system in relation to murder trials. Americans are asking tough questions about the integrity of the police, detectives, and prosecutors involved in the trials, especially when concerning the death of unarmed African Americans. There seems to be something deeply amiss with the criminal justice system. […]

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