Jury experience is trial for historian of science

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann


Graham Burnett

Princeton NJ -- As a historian of science, Graham Burnett has devoted much of his time to studying the relationship between science and European expansionism in the 19th century. Two years ago when he found himself serving as the foreman of a jury hearing a murder trial, he discovered that some of that academic work -- seemingly quite removed from modern life -- helped him come to terms with the experience.

Burnett, who joined the faculty this fall as an assistant professor of history, was finishing up the proofs for his first book, "Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography and a British El Dorado," in 1999 when he received a jury summons. Serving on the jury was such a transforming experience that Burnett ended up writing a book about it.

"A Trial by Jury," published by Knopf in September, is about the killing of Randolph Cuffee, a gay man who is found stabbed to death in his apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. The defendant, Monte Milcray, who is on trial for second-degree murder, admits to the killing but says he was defending himself from being raped. After taking the reader through much of the testimony in the case, Burnett gives a mesmerizing account of how 12 people of varying intellectual abilities attempt to make sense of the set of contradictory and incomplete facts they have been given to determine Milcray's fate.

The process grows unruly as the jury, sequestered during its deliberations, is increasingly fractious. Burnett describes the four days of deliberations in the book: "a clutch of strangers yelled, cursed, rolled on the floor, vomited, whispered, embraced, sobbed and invoked both God and necromancy."

The trial continued to preoccupy Burnett after its conclusion. At the time, he was participating in the inaugural fellowship program at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A colleague in the program, critic and journalist Paul Berman, urged him to put his thoughts about the experience down on paper.

Writing on what he learned about the judicial system, Burnett discovered that his approach was similar in many ways to the methods he employs in his academic work.

"Historians of science will often start out by taking something that seems straight-forward and 'natural' -- something that seems to just be out there in the world -- and then doing close historical work to show how much human craft goes into making that thing appear as it does," he said. "A gene, for instance, is out there in nature, but you can't just grab one. It takes a lot of work to show what a gene is and how it works.

"In some ways I tried to do the same thing in the book by showing that justice doesn't just happen," he continued. "When we say that the jury 'finds' someone guilty or not guilty, it suggests that there's a right answer out there and the jury just goes and gets it. But we all know that no angels come down and make our juridical decisions for us. They are the product of ordinary people rolling up their sleeves and going to work. I wanted to show that work up close. In the end, one sees that the whole social order is ultimately founded on human beings doing the best they can."

Returning to Princeton

Joining the faculty at Princeton has been a homecoming of sorts for Burnett. A 1993 Princeton graduate, he now counts as a colleague the mentor he first met during his freshman year, professor Michael Mahoney.

"Mike Mahoney's class on scientific revolutions was absolutely galvanizing from day one," Burnett recalled. "Before that semester was over, I had gone to his office and told him, 'I want to be a historian of science. Tell me how I do it.'"

And Burnett hadn't even chosen to take Mahoney's class. He spent the first week of his freshman year incapacitated by viral meningitis, contracted during his travels in India the year before. He was so ill that his father registered him for classes and selected all his courses.

After Burnett earned his bachelor's degree from the history department's program in the history of science, he went to Cambridge University on a Marshall Scholarship and earned his Ph.D. there. He then returned to the United States to teach at Yale and Columbia universities and to participate in the New York Public Library's fellowship program.

Classmate plays role

Burnett's Princeton connections came into play in the writing of "A Trial by Jury." He said he was drawn to examining his jury experience in part because of his longtime friendship with classmate Danielle Allen '93, who has studied the way juries functioned in ancient Athens. (An associate professor of classics and politics at the University of Chicago, she recently won a MacArthur Fellowship.) In fact, during a crucial period in the deliberations, when it seemed that the jury, with each heated debate, was losing all cohesion, Burnett invoked his friend's research. He explained to his fellow jurors that the issues that were stalling the jury -- questions about the nature of justice -- were the same dilemmas that the Greeks had struggled with centuries ago. Burnett's words helped make the peace that ultimately led to a verdict.

While Burnett makes no claim to being anything more than an amateur observer of the judicial system, he is gratified that "A Trial by Jury" has been well received by people in the legal field.

"The sacristy of the criminal justice system is the jury room, and yet it's totally inaccessible," he points out. "People who spend their whole lives thinking about what goes on in that room never get to actually see it." Burnett's book affords them a revealing glimpse inside.


January 14, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 13
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