The Barnes & Noble Review
Jury duty: Most of us dread it and do anything we can to get out of it. In D. Graham Burnett's provocative account, A Trial by Jury, the author's stint as foreman on a jury deciding a homicide case in New York City becomes a harrowing and eye-opening ordeal, rather than the simple and straightforward civic duty Burnett was expecting.
Although New York State recently abolished the sequestration of jurors in criminal cases, the rule was still in effect when Burnett and 11 other jurors were asked to decide the fate of a man named Monte Virginia Milcray, accused in the knifing of another man, Randolph Cuffee, in an apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village in 1998. Milcray pleaded self-defense, claiming the victim attacked him when a sexual rendezvous went bad.
The jury was quite diverse, including everything from a restaurant manager to a vacuum cleaner repairman. Burnett, a science historian, was one of two academics in the group. He was not expecting the jury to be sequestered at all. However, the group was ultimately locked away for four long, agonizing, and frustrating days as the various jurors argued over the evidence in the case and conducted numerous laborious reenactments of the murder.
Burnett, as the foreman, felt the case was not provable, based on the evidence presented by the prosecution; he explains that in a self-defense murder case, the state is required to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not commit the act in order to defend him- or herself. He attempts to guide the others into a not guilty verdict, on those grounds, but the jury becomes caught up in petty squabbles, power plays, and attempted escapes from the jury room.
Ultimately, a verdict is reached, but not before Burnett and the other jurors (and the reader) are dragged through one of the most excruciating -- yet, surprisingly, informative and entertaining -- civics lessons American society has to offer. (Nicholas Sinisi)
Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes&Noble.com Nonfiction Editor.
Combining an ethical examination of civic obligation with a meticulous character study, Princeton historian of science Burnett (Masters of All They Surveyed) dramatizes his experience of being selected for jury duty in a capital case. Told as two parts of the same tale (trial and jury deliberations), the story is appropriately navigated between several Scylla-and-Charybdis pairings the court and the jury room, the truth and lies of the case, the application of laws and the fiery desire for justice. While the murder trial delves into sordid details of transvestism, male prostitution and rape, the tale takes its potent turn when Burnett is unexpectedly moved into the position of jury foreman (the original foreman simply disappeared one day) and must play a critical role in the jury deliberations. Holding other jurors' wide-ranging emotions in check while staying focused on the case himself, Burnett ultimately brings readers face-to-face with the stultifying bureaucracy of American law in praxis. Drawing on an academic and intellectual background, he builds an impressive melodrama and tense, emotionally exhausting scenes in the jury room that surely will recall Twelve Angry Men. But while the ruminations are articulate and engrossing, readers may wonder how Burnett plays a key role in the story while managing to remain distant enough to render the facts of the jury room as easily as he does. (Sept. 19) Forecast: Knopf is taking a big position on this, with a first printing of 100,000, a 10-city author tour and national advertising on CNN and Court TV, where Burnett will also make appearances. If he comes across as personable, his glimpse behind the closed doors of justice could tempt a widerange of curious readers. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A young scholar with a one-year fellowship at a prestigious New York City learning institution suddenly finds his quiet, bookish life interrupted by jury duty in Manhattan. Burnett (history, Princeton) chronicles his own path from ordinary citizen and prospective juror, to seated juror, to jury foreman, to peacemaker, and, finally, to resolution artist as he uses his own unique blend of knowledge and reason to lead 11 other disparate souls to a unanimous verdict. The book offers rare, insightful views inside a jury room, as people from all walks of life try to work together and reach a consensus. The case at hand involves a complex blend of seduction and murder, with the defendant claiming he killed the victim in self-defense after being pressured for sex. What emerges from the author's leadership of the deliberations is his attempt to build a consensus through a unique blend of patience, knowledge, and wisdom intrinsic to the rigor and discipline of classical and academic thought processes. Burnett reminds us how imperfect the adversarial system of law really is, and the narrative format allows for a rapid and enjoyable overview of the topic. Recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Lib., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
An affecting meditation on jury duty laid out with the dexterity of a police procedural. When intellectual historian and Princeton professor Burnett (Masters of All They Surveyed) receives a juror card during a winter sabbatical, he welcomes it as an improbable vacation into the urban jungle, a whimsy he is disabused of by the coiling process of jury selection alone. The judicial lottery, along with his own scruples, lands him in Part 24 of the New York Supreme Court, its military and religious underpinnings richly evoked, for the murder trial of a young fiance who stabbed a surreptitious date after she turned out to be an unexpectedly domineering transsexual. After listening in open court for several days and spending four more sequestered as foreman with his co-jurors, Burnett gains a more worldly-wise appreciation of the power of the state and the state of things. The episode, he writes, has been a gift that keeps on costing. The gift is compellingly shared with insights that reveal his own self (mindful, intelligent, occasionally pedantic) and the other jurors, all locked in the therapeutic anarchy and political jockeying of their closed room. There, the ancient conflict between legal and moral justice plays out, leading toward a remarkable display of coordinated gravitas at the reading of the verdict. After the trial, evidence highly corroborative to the verdict comes to light; however, Burnett laments, "welcome as the news was, it ransomed our verdict only by bankrupting its logic." He advocates the wisdom of keeping large legal questions open while making decisions based on delimited criteria. Like having one's day in court, reading this revelatory account is a rite of passage that could make any Law and Order hound or legal eagle a more reasonable person.
[Burnett] is a graceful, economical writer, with a sharp eye for detail and a nuanced feel for character. . . . Irresistible.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Immensely readable.” —The Washington Post
“Burnett manages to paint vivid portraits of his fellow-jurors and examine the knottier issues of class, race, and gender that complicate the justice system’s search for objective truth.” —The New Yorker
“A pleasure to read . . . Illuminating and, ultimately, uplifting.” —The Nation
“Never have we been privy to actual jury room deliberations in all of their stark human complexity and perversity — and certainly never under the guidance of a sensibility, intelligence, and narrative skill like Mr. Burnett’s.” —New York Law Journal