For most of us, serving on a jury is one of the few occasions in which our opinion has a life-altering impact. Taking on this civic duty is such an unaccustomed ascent to power and responsibility that we are almost as certain to be affected by it as the person we are judging (albeit seldom as drastically). In A Trial by Jury, from his vantage point as jury foreman, Burnett chronicles the trial and judgment of Monte Milcray for stabbing Randolph Cuffee to death. Is Milcray guilty of murder, as the prosecution argues, or did he act in self-defense, as he contends? This is what the jury must decide.

The trial takes place in a New York City courtroom in early 2000 and is complicated by the fact that Milcray and Cuffee, a transvestite, were apparently having sex when the killing occurred. Aside from the tawdriness that gives rise to it, the trial is run-of-the-mill. There are no celebrities involved, no dazzling police work, no cunning legal sallies. The arguments and summations are completed in less than two weeks, and the verdict is delivered on the fourth day of deliberation. An academic he now teaches history at Princeton Burnett is less interested in the drama of the final judgment than in the psychological dynamics that lead up to it. He reveals at the start what the verdict will be, the better to focus the reader's attention on how the jury members process evidence, interact with each other in close confinement and ultimately reach a unanimous decision. Although he quickly discovers that his stereotypes of the other jurors are all wrong, Burnett does demonstrate that each of them sees the defendant through the scarred prism of his or her own experience.

Sensing their own power, the jurors at first discuss whether it might not be preferable to administer real justice instead of adhering strictly to the law. But one member undercuts this naive ideal with the observation that nobody has asked me to play God. I've been asked to apply the law. Justice belongs to God; men only have the law. Burnett notes that his training has inclined him toward dealing with cosmic questions that have only provisional answers. As a juror, however, he must render an absolute answer and one he can live with. His description of how he and the others come to terms with this awful burden makes this an absorbing story.

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

 

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