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Juries Can Handle the Truth

JUDGE Lance Ito is to be congratulated. Despite requests from attorneys on both sides of the O. J. Simpson case, Judge Ito has refused to withhold relevant information from the jury.

Defense attorneys had asked Judge Ito to prohibit prosecutors from telling the jury about 62 acts of alleged spousal abuse by Mr. Simpson. Even though that evidence includes police records about the defendant's 1989 arrest and conviction for allegedly beating his wife, and his letters apologizing to her, de-fense attorneys argued that it would prejudice the jury.

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Prosecutors had petitioned to exclude evidence of alleged racial bias on the part of detective Mark Fuhrman, the officer who discovered the now-famous bloody glove. Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden argued that presenting Mr. Fuhrman's alleged slur about African Americans will ''blind the jury to the truth.''

Judge Ito wisely refused to go along. He substantially rejected all efforts to keep important information from the jury, despite the fact that keeping the jury in the dark seemed to be the only point on which both prosecution and defense attorneys agreed.

The O. J. Simpson case is an example of how both prosecution and defense attorneys work to deny relevant information to juries. For example, many juries are not told about defendants' past criminal convictions. Every day, jurors are denied essential information that would help them to carry out their constitutional obligation to do justice.

Why do attorneys and judges deny jurors the facts necessary to make informed decisions? The reason is not that the information is irrelevant; it is thought to be too relevant. In 1948, Associate Justice Robert Jackson wrote for the Supreme Court that evidence about defendants' character, including prior convictions, is ''not rejected because character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with the jury .''

Yet despite its so-called prejudicial effect, judges are routinely given information about the past conduct and character of defendants and witnesses. Even when a judge decides a case without a jury, the law shows confidence in his or her ability to separate relevance from prejudice. Only juries are thought unable to do so.

Juries were not always treated with such lack of respect. Early in this country's history, the jury was viewed as an active participant in the trial, knowledgeable about the parties and facts in the case. It represented the common sense of its com-munity. Beginning in the late 19th century, however, many courts adopted the view that juries were blank slates, to be written on by judges and attorneys. Juries became more observers than participants.

We rely on juries to decide guilt or innocence. We rely on them to decide complicated and technical civil suits. We rely on juries to evaluate the significance of evidence. We rely on juries to follow judges' instructions to ''forget'' media reports or what they have just heard in the courtroom.

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Why do we believe juries are able to perform all these tasks, but not to evaluate evidence about past conduct or statements? If such evidence is inherently too prejudicial, why do we give it to judges? If we don't trust juries, then we must rethink our dependence on them to decide guilt or innocence. Either we have faith in the system of a jury of one's peers or we don't. Blind justice is not served by a blindfolded jury, because what the jury doesn't know can hurt us all.

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