Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Idaho

Jury trial invaluable to community
Guest column

Judge Charles Hosack
Special to The Idaho Spokesman-Review

In August 2000, a Kootenai County jury returned a $6.3 million verdict in a personal lawsuit against Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations organization.

The winning plaintiffs have since sold the Aryans' land, which is now owned by North Idaho College. The Aryans have scattered. Recent news reports indicate that the Aryans' efforts to reorganize are taking place in distant states, far away from our community. These developments were noted last week at the Idaho Human Rights banquet.

As the judge who presided over the civil trial, I believe the Aryan trial and its aftermath contain a lesson that goes far beyond that particular trial. The trial confirmed the value of the jury system to our community.

Any community has its divisions and its disputes. Within appropriate limits, this type of diversity is both expected and healthy. But a community needs a decision maker to resolve disputes when all efforts at compromise have failed. One need only look at the recent events in the Middle East to consider the alternative.

Our founding fathers devised a marvelous system of government -- in my opinion, the finest in the world -- but I think we often overlook the role of the jury.

The jury concept started hundreds of years ago in England, when the people concluded that some decisions were too important to be left to just the king and his friends; that the people themselves, the jury of peers, should make those decisions.

The United States, I believe, has elevated the role of the jury higher than any other country. In America, our judicial system calls 12 people off the street (in a fair and orderly way), and charges them with the sacred trust of being fair and impartial jurors to find the truth, achieve justice, and decide the case. It is juries, deciding case after case, big and small, that enforce our community values and safeguard our individual liberties.

The Aryans hardly reflected our community's values.

Indeed, at trial their attorney advocated their right to hate. But the jury in the Aryan trial was deciding a personal injury case. There, the issue was not whether the Aryans shared our values, but whether the Aryans had acted in a way causing harm to others on one fateful day.

During the trial, the plaintiffs produced evidence to the jury which, if believed, proved that the Aryans had acted unreasonably in ways that they should have known would cause harm to others. The Aryans introduced evidence that, if believed, established that they had no reason to know that their actions could forseeably cause others harm. Our community relied upon the jury to decide whom to believe.

As the trial judge, I felt an obligation to run the trial as I would any other personal injury trial.

If the trial became a circus, if it in any way resembled the O.J. Simpson trial, not only would our community get a black eye, but the verdict of the jury -- whatever it might be -- would lose its validity. The trial proceedings had to ensure that the jury could focus on the applicable rules of law, and on the evidence about the alleged events. If the court allowed the jury to function properly, then the process would be fair, and the verdict would be accepted as a valid statement on behalf of our community.

The jury believed the plaintiffs and not the Aryans.

There have been no appeals.

The jury verdict not only stands, it has been widely accepted as a statement by our community. We only need to recognize that a jury verdict has spoken out on behalf of our community in a very powerful way.

The greatness of America is that we tolerate even those who oppose our own values. At times, that means we have to resolve disputes which will involve those individuals. In the Aryan trial and its aftermath, we affirmed that even when those kinds of disputes arise, we can have a jury hear and fairly decide the dispute. Most importantly, because the verdict will be decided by ordinary citizens, faithfully doing their duty as jurors, even those who disagree will accept the decision as valid and binding.

The community then can, and will, move on.

First District Judge Charles Hosack presided over the 2000 Aryan Nations civil trial.


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