A Jury Walks Tall
by Kenneth Wagner
The film Walking Tall,
starring former professional wrestler Dwayne "The Rock"
Johnson and former Jackass star Johnny Knoxville may seem
like a strange film to find discussed in a legal journal. However,
this film aptly displays the hope that the jury trial system
holds out for citizens today.
The practice of trial by jury
is indeed an old one. Article 39 of the Magna Carta, one of
the foundational documents in the legal system of English speaking
nations around the world, reads as follows:
No free man shall be arrested,
or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled,
or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send
against him, unless by legal judgment of his peers, or by the
law of the land.
practice of limiting the government's ability to take action
against its citizens unless a panel of such citizen's passes
off on the action has been a feature of our nation's legal system
its inception. Indeed, references to the right of citizens to
a jury trial can be found in the Constitution in Article III,
Section 2 and in two of the 10 Amendments of the Bill of Rights
(the Sixth and Seventh).
This historical precedent does
not, however, make the use of juries uncontroversial. Many legal
scholars have critiqued the practice of placing justice in the
hands of untrained laymen often seem highly susceptible to emotional
and irrational appeals. The Common Law tradition of keeping
juries 'virginal' or untainted by improper evidence and arguments
is the basis of much of the rules of our legal procedure. This
idea of empowering an uninformed group of non-experts in such
weighty matters was perhaps best skewered by Mark Twain when
he said: "We have a criminal jury system which is superior
to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the
difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don't know anything
and can't read. "
I cannot help but disagree.
The historical veneration of the jury system is not without
a solid basis. Time and time again, from the case of Shaftsbury
in England to the Zenger case in colonial America, juries have
sympathized with citizens that were the subject of intolerable
government abuses of power and prosecution. This history and
remaining potential is born out by the film Walking Tall.
The Rock stars as Chris Vaughan,
who arrives home from military service to rural Kitsap County,
Washington. He finds that the idyllic small town he grew up
in has changed in his absence, notably due to the influence of
the addition of a casino (which itself demonstrates the legal
concept of 'negative secondary effects' often purported to such
establishments). The wealthy, immoral casino owner has the law
enforcement establishment on his payroll, and when Vaughan clashes
with the casino the sheriff, prosecutor, judge and public offender
all conspire to railroad the popular hero.
In "real life" as
in "reel life" this kind of corrupt conspiracy has
been exposed in history all too often. What is a defendant to
do when all the usual 'courtroom actors' are determined to inflict
injustice on him? That is where the jury comes in, both in legal
theory and in the film. The hero represents himself (demonstrating
the importance of the right (upheld in the landmark case Faretta
v. California 422 U.S. 806 (1975)) and addresses his plea directly
to the jury. This works: the promise of the right to jury trial
is demonstrated when the jury, despite the contrivances of the
courtroom work-group, acquits Vaughan. It is from here that
Vaughan becomes the new sheriff of the town and ultimately cleans
up the town. We need not buy the subsequent explosions and machine
gunning of the sheriff's office to recognize the important lesson
that Vaughan's acquittal by a jury of his peers teaches.
Posted October 21, 2005