The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


The O. J. Simpson Verdict

Many Americans are disturbed that a man who they think is obviously guilty has, in effect, "gotten away with murder." This has caused some to deride our justice system because of what they consider a failure of justice to prevail in this notorious case.

There is one quote from Jefferson that stands out as particularly relevant here:

O.J. was found Not Guilty under the forms of law. The verdict was the finding of a jury that saw evidence presented in a way that only a handful of persons not interested in the case was able to experience. There are many highly qualified people, not so well acquainted with the case as presented to the jury, who think O.J. guilty, and there are many similarly who think him innocent. Is he really not guilty? Possibly only O.J. knows for absolute certain.

But rather than excoriate the jury, the judge, the attorneys and the justice system in this country, we should glory in the fact that everything in that case was conducted according to the forms of law, and that whatever the outcome, if indeed he is guilty, it is better that he should escape than that he should be punished under any other system.

After all, under despotic governments, it is more often the innocent who oppose the regime that are punished, and the guilty who are part of the regime that escape punishment. If this one person who may be guilty escapes punishment in a case in which the forces of the state were marshaled against him, we Americans should be proud of a system that is not so dominated by the state as to prevent this outcome from sometimes happening. If anything, the O.J. Simpson case proves that our system works! We have trials by jury that sometime produce results that are disfavored by authorities and even, perhaps, by public opinion itself. But we want a justice system under the control of the people, not under the governmental authorities. As Jefferson said,

Better that sometimes a guilty person goes free than that we have such an arbitrary system. The most essential thing is that we have a jury system that works most of the time by far, and that our inherent and inalienable rights remain protected. This is best assured with a system like the one we have now. It is when the people themselves in the role of jurors administer this essential governmental decision-making process that we will all be safe. Judgments on the guilt or innocence of persons, confiscations of property and other government-levied penalties outside of the jury system are a sure path to despotism.

We often think of the judges as the principal wielders of the judicial power, but in fact the real power as it affects an individual involved in the process lies in the hands of the people themselves. It is in their power to say "Yea" or "Nay" when a case is tried, and this is the first line of defense against tyranny in government. This is why Jefferson wrote that

If a government can levy penalties without bringing the matter before a jury, there is the opportunity for great abuse of power. When things come before a jury, if the government's actions are despotic, a jury of ordinary citizens can nullify those actions.

The suggestion of Jury Nullification in the O.J. case was totally improper, and should never have been brought up by the defense. The problem was not with the law or with bias on the part of the judge, but with the evidence. And there is no justification for nullification other than bias in the judge and his interpretation of the law; that is, a case that, in Jefferson's words, relates "to a point of public liberty."

Notice the result of a jury mistake in such cases: A jury mistake means they have gone against what is actually right. But this is a casual error, and is less dangerous to the state and less afflicting to the other side (in civil cases) than if there were no protection of this sort in the system. Better to have an occasional error, better that a guilty person on rare occasion escape, than that the justice system not have this power of the people to correct official tyranny at the level of its infliction.

Whether we agree with the jury decision or not, the O.J. Simpson verdict should not cause us to think less of the American system of justice. There are many other problems with our system of justice, but the occasional possibility of error on the part of a jury is not one of them.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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