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Yvonne Abraham

Mattapan verdict shows jury system works

Jury deliberations in the Mattapan massacre trial were not pretty. From what we’ve learned since Thursday, it’s clear that the men and women deciding the fates of two accused murderers were fully human.

Deciding whether Dwayne Moore and Edward Washington murdered four people, including a toddler, on a Mattapan street in 2010, one juror seems to have been convinced early on that she could not vote to convict Moore. There was yelling and swearing in the jury room as others tried to change her mind.

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The result of the tumult: A mistrial on the murder charges against Moore, and not guilty verdicts on all charges against Washington.

“I will never believe in the system again,’’ said Avis Springette, the 2-year-old victim’s aunt. “They have made a big mistake.’’ Governor Deval Patrick called the verdict “unbelievable.’’

In the wake of the messy outcome, it’s tempting to rail against that juror - and to wonder about the competence of juries in general. I’ve done it plenty of times (Casey Anthony, anyone?). But as ugly as it can be sometimes, this is the system we have. And despite gut-wrenching outcomes like this, it’s a pretty great one.

“The American jury was the most innovative invention of the founders of our society,’’ said Charles Nesson, Weld Professor of Law at Harvard. “It’s absolutely central to the notion of what America [is]. . . . The state can’t take our liberty away unless 12 of us agree.’’

The 12 people who provide this check on executive power are supposed to represent our entire society. That means they can share all of our qualities. They can be smart, doltish, open-minded, rigid, accepting, bigoted, virtuous, evil. Which means jury deliberations are always potentially messy.

Despite all this, jurors usually get it right. Studies show that, in a large majority of cases, juries reach the same conclusions as judges would after considering the same evidence. “That was surely my experience,’’ said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who is now a professor at Harvard Law School. “For every verdict like this one in which people are outraged, there are 10 others which are completely consistent with what you would have expected.’’

And who is to say that one judge always sees more clearly than 12 average people anyway? It’s easy to second guess jurors from the sidelines. It’s a whole different proposition once you’re sitting in that courtroom yourself, holding a person’s fate in your hands. The jury in this case faced more pressure than most. The murders were horrific, and notorious. Every day, they were confronted by the pain of the victims’ relatives, whose grief and understandable anger repeatedly erupted in the courtroom. Try thinking clearly in the face of all that.

From where I sit, these men and women managed it remarkably well. Having seen the prosecution’s key witness Kimani Washington testify, I can understand how jurors might have gone either way with their verdicts. He was, after all, an armed robber and pimp who had lied to police before, and he took part in the robbery that led to the murders. Jurors quickly rejected the prosecution’s case against Edward Washington, and all but one of them accepted it on Moore.

Maybe the woman who refused to convict Moore did it for less than rational reasons. That would certainly be easier for smarting prosecutors to swallow (though when other jurors tried to have the woman dismissed for refusing to deliberate, Judge Christine McEvoy declined). Or maybe the juror simply decided she could not send a man to prison on the evidence she saw.

We may never know if she represents the worst of our brilliant, imperfect jury system, or its best. But either way that system works, and we should keep our faith in it - warts and all.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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