The Verdict on Juries

Article excerpt

The American jury remains basically sound, the verdict is clearly in its favor.

In reviewing debates and research evidence about jury trials for our book, American Juries: The Verdict (Prometheus Books, 2007), we have had the chance to reflect on the status of the jury system in the United States. High profile jury trials put the spotlight on the American practice of using its citizens as decision makers. When jury verdicts are at odds with public opinion, criticisms of the institution are common. The civil jury has been a lightning rod for those who want tort reform. This article draws together some of our reflections about the health of the jury system and our predictions for its future.

Signs of strength

As we evaluated the case for the jury in the course of our research, we observed many signs that the American jury is a sound decision maker in the vast majority of both civil and criminal trials. Very significant to us were the findings from empirical studies that show that the strength of the evidence presented at the trial is the major determinant of jury verdicts. Similarly, civil jury damage awards are strongly correlated with the degree of injury in a case. These reasonable patterns in jury decisions go a long way toward reassuring us that juries, by and large, listen to the judge and decide cases on the merits of the evidence rather than on biases and prejudice.

Furthermore, in systematic studies spanning five decades, we find that judges agree with jury verdicts in most cases. Many readers will know of the basic finding from the pioneering jury research done at the University of Chicago Law School during the 1950s. That early research showed that judges agreed with jury verdicts in 78 percent of criminal and civil trials. But what may not be as well known are the multiple replications of that basic discovery of substantial judgejury agreement. What is more, the recent research substantiates early ideas about why juries decide cases distinctively.

But first, it's worth noting what does not explain judge-jury differences. In both civil and criminal trials, the disagreement is unrelated to the complexity of the trial evidence, as would be expected if juries misunderstood law and evidence that legal experts correctly comprehended. Nor is it associated with whether a business or a corporation is the defendant in the case, as would be presumed if juries were more biased against corporate actors than judges. Most judges say that jurors make a serious attempt to apply the law, and they do not see jurors relying on their feelings rather than the law in deciding on a verdict.

Instead, the jury's distinctive approach of common sense justice, and judges' greater willingness to convict based on the same evidence, best explain why juries and judges sometimes reach different conclusions. These juror values affect the verdicts primarily in trials in which the evidence is relatively evenly balanced and a verdict for either side could be justified. Other studies, which show that the judgments of medical experts and arbitrators converge with jury decisions, reinforce this basic conclusion.

Many mock jury studies that allow a fine-grained examination of the decision process also put the jury in a generally good light. Jurors' individual and collective recall and comprehension of evidence are substantial. Jurors critically evaluate the content and consistency of testimony provided by both lay and expert witnesses, and do not appear to rubber stamp expert conclusions. The unique Arizona Jury Project, which allowed taping of the actual discussions and deliberations of 50 civil juries (with permission of the jurors and under strict confidentiality conditions), backs up the mock jury studies.1

A key element contributing to jury competence is the deliberation process. A representative, diverse jury promotes vigorous debate. One of the most dramatic and important changes over the last half century is the increasing diversity of the American jury. …