Tag: trials

American Juries: Seekers of Truth or Mere Consensus? Part II

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Author’s note: This is the second in a series of related posts examining the American Jury. In the first installment (here), we looked at the antecedents created by the judicial system that foster Jury Groupthink. We said that seven systemic components lead to a higher risk of groupthink when citizens form isolated, cohesive work groups to decide issues in a litigation setting. We also explained that the more antecedents in the mix, the higher the likelihood of decisions based not on reason or evidence but more on the need to reach a unanimous decision and to defend that decision later. The events of this week serve almost as a scripted piece of this article as first one then another juror in the Zimmerman case came forward to exemplify aspects of the groupthink mentality. (More about that  in Installment Three.) Antecedents by the judicial system aren’t the only promoters of group think. Societal constructs created by our society as a whole enhances the pattern, too, and serve as telltale markers of the bad decision-making, as we shall see.

rodney_matthews_alice in wonderland_the knave on trial

You think your average juror is King Solomon? No! He’s a roofer with a mortgage. He wants to go home and sit in his Barcalounger and let the cable TV wash over him. And this man doesn’t give a single, solitary droplet of shit about truth, justice or your American way.

~John Grisham, The Runaway Jury


John Grisham’s crystallized cynicism surely doesn’t hold true for all jurors but the point to be made is that jurors are not “big picture” deciders of great issues of the day utilizing lofty principles. Instead, jurors tend to recoil from abstract notions of truth and justice and delve more deeply into human motivations and empathy. In their classic work on American juries, Professors Kalven and Zeisel of the University of Chicago, concluded that “in many instances the jury reaction goes well beyond” rational sentiments “and rests on empathy of one human being to another.”  Appealing enough to our natural sentiments and intuitively correct, but  in the battle of human versus human, the question becomes, “empathy for whom?” And how does empathy fit into the structure of  a system that calls for cold-blooded reason and eschews warm-hearted sentiments? Not so well, it seems. In fact, jurors swear off these  emotional human frailties (which form much of their everyday decision-making. Don’t think so? Ask yourself: “Why did I marry my wife? Wide pubic bone for ease in childbearing perhaps, there Mr. Spock?) and promise to be guided by the evidence alone.  How can juries bridge the gap between their own intuition and the judge’s instruction?

Continue reading “American Juries: Seekers of Truth or Mere Consensus? Part II”

American Juries: Seekers of Truth or Mere Consensus? Part I

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

rodney_matthews_alice in wonderland_the knave on trial

”Write that down,” the King said to the jury, and the jury eagerly wrote down all three dates on their slates, and then added them up, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence.”

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Few institutions of the English speaking peoples are held in the same esteem as juries in criminal cases. A full three quarters of those polled in the U.S. would want their case decided by a jury rather than a judge. Three in five Australians believe their jury system is working well. In the UK, juries enjoy support from 72% of the population and the same percentage rate the right to trial by jury as one of the most important in society. Compare that to the U.S. Congress’ approval rating of 15% or the President’s rating of 43% and you can see that in America we love juries.

And why shouldn’t we? After all, it was Jefferson who reminded none other than that firebrand of the Revolution, Thomas Payne, in 1789, that “trial by jury [is] the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Jefferson words surely were on the mind of Justice Byron “Whizzer” White when he wrote, “The purpose of a jury is to guard against the exercise of arbitrary power — to make available the commonsense judgment of the community as a hedge against the overzealous or mistaken prosecutor and in preference to the professional or perhaps overconditioned or biased response of a judge.”

But do modern juries live up to the billing? Are they the bulwarks of democracy seeking only truth or sad victims of a process designed to produce groupthink results due to systemic flaws? Are they staunch individuals committed to their position and determined to fight to the last man to prove it, or are they susceptible to influences both in and out of the deliberation room which have little or nothing to do with evidence and logic. In essence, are they seekers of truth or merely consensus?

Continue reading “American Juries: Seekers of Truth or Mere Consensus? Part I”