Jim Shella: The justice system is one part of government that works

Jim ShellaThe American system of government is under attack like never before. That occurred to me on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Just turn on the TV and you can bear witness as critics challenge our elections, the Electoral College, Congress, the Supreme Court, the police, redistricting, the filibuster, you name it. Of course, the White House is always under siege, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Let me take this opportunity to present an alternative view with regard to just one aspect of our democracy—the judicial system.

I think it works.

The news has been filled of late with high-profile trials. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin convicted of killing George Floyd in a case that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Kyle Rittenhouse found not guilty of killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell found guilty of sex trafficking, and Silicon Valley CEO Elizabeth Holmes convicted of fraud.

After Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer Kim Potter accidentally killed motorist Daunte Wright, the jury found her guilty of two manslaughter charges. But what caught my attention was the fact that the jury deliberated for two days after reaching the first verdict before deciding the second. Those people were serious about their assignment and did the right thing.

I watched with interest because I have been named to three juries over the years. One was a civil case that ended in a mistrial. The second was an attempted murder case. It involved a domestic argument and a box cutter. A man sliced his girlfriend’s neck, though amazingly, she suffered only minor injuries. We delivered a guilty verdict even though a couple of women on the jury were uncomfortable with the idea of passing judgment.

Years later, I became the foreman of the jury in a murder trial. Two men got into an argument at a Halloween party in an upstairs community center. One issued threats but then left. As he walked away, the other man shot him in the back. The shooter claimed self-defense.

After the trial and closing arguments, deliberations began and one of the jurors had a startling revelation. “This is just like what happened to me,” he said. He then went on to describe how he once got in a scuffle while playing basketball at an upstairs gymnasium. As the other man left, he went to his gym bag to retrieve a gun and gave chase. He intended to shoot the bully in the back, but when he got outside his intended victim was gone.

“This isn’t about you,” I said in the effort to get deliberations back on track. Over time, the basketball player became a holdout for a not guilty verdict while the rest of us on the jury came down on the side of guilty.

Once we were well into the evening, without dinner, the basketball player began to soften. He announced that he had a date that slipped his mind and suddenly we reached a unanimous guilty verdict.

It wasn’t pretty, but the system worked the way it is supposed to, just as it did in the cases I mentioned earlier. (We can argue about the Rittenhouse verdict, but Wisconsin law seems to permit his actions. Just stop making him a hero.)

Oh, and one more thing.

We need cameras in courtrooms in Indiana so the public can see how the system works the same way we all witnessed in the trials in Minnesota and Wisconsin.•

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Shella hosted WFYI’s “Indiana Week in Review” for 25 years and covered Indiana politics for WISH-TV for more than three decades.


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