THE "KETTLEFUL OF LAW" IN REAL JURY DELIBERATIONS: SUCCESSES, FAILURES, AND NEXT STEPS[dagger]
Diamond, Shari Seidman, Murphy, Beth, Rose, Mary R., Northwestern University Law Review
ABSTRACT-According to standard lore, when jurors are doused with "a kettleful of law" at the end of a trial, they either ignore it or are hopelessly confused. We present new evidence from a unique data set: not mock jury experiments or post-trial self-reports, but rather the deliberations of fifty real civil juries. Our intensive analysis of these deliberations presents a picture that contradicts received wisdom about juries and the law. We show that juries in typical civil cases pay substantial attention to the instructions and that although they struggle, the juries develop a reasonable grasp of most of the law they are asked to apply. When instructions fail, they do so primarily in ways that are generally ignored in the debate about juries and the law. That is, the jury deliberations reveal that when communication breaks down, the breakdown stems from more fundamental sources than simply opaque legal language. We identify a few modest pockets of juror resistance to the law and suggest why jury commonsense may in some instances be preferable to announced legal standards. We conclude that it will take more than a "plain English" movement to achieve genuine harmony between laypersons and jury instructions on the law.
I. JURIES AND THE LAW
The standard story told about juries and the law is that the legal instructions jurors receive at the end of the trial are little more than window dressing-either the jurors simply ignore the instructions or they are hopelessly confused by the legal guidance the instructions purport to give.1 After all, if law students struggle mightily to learn how to think like lawyers and attorneys spend a lifetime in practice arguing about how the law should be interpreted, how can anyone expect to convey complex legal principles to a lay audience with an abbreviated presentation at the end of a trial? The classic image is of the jury "being doused with a kettleful of law during the charge that would make a third-year law student blanch."2 Yet jury trials proceed on the implicit assumption that jurors learn the relevant law from jury instructions.3 Appellate courts follow suit, regularly engaging in a careful parsing of the specific language used in the instructions the jury has been given, assuming, or at least behaving as if they assume, that a legally correct instruction was necessary and sufficient to guide the jury in producing an acceptable verdict.4 This account of court behavior suggests a serious commitment to having jurors apply the law.
An alternative view of jury instructions is that the legal system is ambivalent or even opposed to interfering with juries as they apply their laypersons' sense of justice.5 Indeed, as we describe in detail below, some of the methods and procedures used in drafting and delivering jury instructions suggest at least a softness in the commitment to instructing juries on the relevant law.
Mock jury studies and post-trial surveys have long suggested substantial failures in the instruction process, but they have spurred little action.6 Until now, however, we have had no direct evidence on what real juries actually do with the law during their deliberations. The new empirical research we present here fills this gap and provides a very different image of juries grappling with the law than the one elicited by mock jury studies and post-trial surveys. For the first time, the current research provides a detailed analysis of how jurors discuss the law as they reach their verdicts. The picture that emerges from the deliberations of fifty real civil juries reveals that jury instructions both succeed and fail in unexpected ways. The results suggest that legal jargon is not the primary culprit that threatens juror comprehension and application of the relevant law. Drawing on this new evidence, we identify the previously unacknowledged sources that pose obstacles to the jury's understanding and application of the law and suggest approaches to respond to them. …