Saturday, January 23, 2010

Donovan on French Juries and Justice

Reynolds's Before Eminent Domain was only one of three books of European legal history out this year in Studies in Legal History, published by the University of North Carolina Press. A second was James M. Donovan's Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. (Donovan is an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University at Mont Alto.) Here is the press's description:
James Donovan takes a comprehensive approach to the history of the jury in modern France by investigating the legal, political, sociocultural, and intellectual aspects of jury trial from the Revolution through the twentieth century. He demonstrates that these juries, through their decisions, helped shape reform of the nation's criminal justice system.

From their introduction in 1791 as an expression of the sovereignty of the people through the early 1900s, argues Donovan, juries often acted against the wishes of the political and judicial authorities, despite repeated governmental attempts to manipulate their composition. High acquittal rates for both political and nonpolitical crimes were in part due to juror resistance to the harsh and rigid punishments imposed by the Napoleonic Penal Code, Donovan explains.

In response, legislators gradually enacted laws to lower penalties for certain crimes and to give jurors legal means to offer nuanced verdicts and to ameliorate punishments. Faced with persistently high acquittal rates, however, governments eventually took powers away from juries by withdrawing many cases from their purview and ultimately destroying the panels' independence in 1941.
The blurbs:
"This book is the product of wide reading and analytic ingenuity. It is a model study in the complex relationship between criminal procedure, substantive criminal law, and politics, and it deserves the attention of French historians and scholars of criminal law alike."
--James Q. Whitman, Yale University

"Donovan makes a new and important contribution to the study of criminal justice in Europe by placing the institution of the jury in its broader judicial, political, and intellectual context. He demonstrates that as an independent force closely attuned to the views of the French laity, the trial jury played a crucial role in adapting criminal law to meet the needs of the broader society. An excellent book."
--Robert Allen, Stephen F. Austin State University

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