Over the past 15 years, my primary interest has been teaching Psychology and the Law and related courses. Then, in spring 2014, I taught Group Dynamics and Processes, an experience that renewed my interest in my own research.
As part of the course requirements, my students became mock jurors who watched and then deliberated on an abbreviated trial of a real death penalty case, Ohio State v. Mark Ducic. I watched their recorded deliberations with fascination. Two mock jurors dominated the conversation, though the others vehemently disagreed with them. Those others rarely spoke, but when they did, everyone listened. In the end, my students reached a unanimous not-guilty decision — a verdict different from the real jury. I was left to ponder the group dynamics that led to their contentious agreement.
The following academic term, I taught the honors course The Exonerated. In it, students learned about factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. They read research showing that because jurors believe confident eyewitnesses are accurate witnesses, misidentified perpetrators are often convicted. In fact, confident eyewitness testimony is the most powerful testimony in a criminal case, more compelling even than fingerprint and DNA evidence.
Toward the end of the course and the emergence of the Black Lives Movement, a black man named Ricky Jackson was released from prison in November 2015 after serving 40 years for a crime he did not commit. It took most of my life for him to be exonerated. As my students and I read the appalling details of Jackson’s case, I became increasingly disheartened about the failures of our legal system. My background led me to reinvest my energy in applied research with the hope of preventing wrongful convictions.
The Ideal Juror
Since 1970, social scientists, especially social psychologists, have been consulting in trials to construct the profile of the ideal juror in certain high-profile cases. Scientific jury selection is the application of social science techniques and research to determine which potential jurors may be agreeably biased to one side (or the other) in a court case. Scientific jury selection remains one of the more flashy and controversial services of the lucrative trial consulting industry. Today, many social psychologists cringe at the use and misuse of social scientific research in this booming industry. For example, a social psychologist might recommend to a defense lawyer that Caucasian men of a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to convict, so the defense lawyer should use peremptory challenges to strike these men. Lawyers can’t strike a potential juror based on race, but many admit they can easily hide that they’re doing so. In theory, peremptory challenges provide a more impartial jury. In reality, lawyers are trying to strike people who will be unsympathetic toward their client regardless of the facts of the case. As I think about the role of peremptory challenges, I’m reminded of infamous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow’s quip about jurors:
I try to get a jury with little education but with much human emotion. The Irish are always best for the defense. I don’t want a Scotsman, for he has too little human feelings; I don’t want a Scandinavian, for he has too strong a respect for law as law. In general, I don’t want a religious person, for he believes in sin and punishment. The defense should avoid rich men who have a high regard for the law, as they make and use it. The smug and ultra-respectable think they are the guardians of society, and they believe the law is for them.
While Darrow’s clever remarks are meant to amuse, they also bring a chill. Our legal system appears to be a game in which lawyers, with the use of social psychologists’ expertise, find the best pawns to help them win their case. I have nightmares about the dubious role social psychologists play in selecting a biased jury.
Based on some preliminary research, however, I’ll offer a different model of selecting the perfect juror. My new model represents my dreams for social psychologists in their efforts to assist and help improve the legal system. Recently, I analyzed the videotaped jury deliberations of Colorado v. Laura Trujillo after a five-day trial. Trujillo, 20 and confined to a wheelchair, fell asleep one night after taking painkillers and woke in the morning to find her daughter, Alize, dead on the floor. Trujillo’s boyfriend, Randy Ramirez, confessed he beat Alize to death and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Trujillo stood trial for also being criminally responsible for her daughter’s death. The coroner deemed it one of the worst cases of child abuse. The prosecutors claimed Trujillo knew Ramirez was abusive and didn’t take reasonable steps to protect her daughter. The real jury deliberated for more than 10.5 hours. The jurors concluded that Trujillo had known about some of Ramirez’s abuse of Alize but had been unaware of the serious abuse. They found her “guilty of child abuse, and her recklessness caused injury other than serious bodily injury to the child.” Trujillo was sentenced to two years in prison.
At first blush, this case is remarkable only because the deliberations were taped. The deliberation room is sacred — only jurors enter and leave during deliberations, and there are usually no cameras. This, however, is one of a handful of cases and deliberations that have been taped to help academics understand how jurors make their decisions. I analyzed the recorded deliberations and assessed the themes that emerged based on the positive and negative nonverbal behavior (e.g., rolling of the eyes, banging the table, head nodding), the verbal behavior (e.g., number of times jurors spoke, their understanding of the legal charges) and analytical reasoning strategies employed (e.g., conjunctive decision-making rules, disjunctive decision-making rules). A number of interesting themes emerged, but I was most struck by the jury deliberation length and legal complexity, and how those factors interacted with two juror characteristics (i.e., need for cognition and need for closure). Specifically, as the jury deliberations moved past the five-hour point, jurors with a low need for cognition and high need for closure began to dominate the jury deliberations.
People with a high need for cognition love to solve puzzles, enjoy debate and engage in analytical thinking. Those with a low need for cognition, however, seem irritated by such efforts and just want to know the answer without working through the problem. It seems problematic to have such people on a jury. The jurists who displayed a low need for cognition throughout the jury deliberations were more likely to engage in negative interpersonal behaviors such as eye rolling, sighing and interrupting.
The Juror’s Challenge
Despite the glitz and glamour of programs such as “Law and Order,” being a juror is not always exciting. It may be for the first hour, or even the first day, but as the trial progresses with complex legal language, and challenging scientific information and testimony, the excitement wanes, especially for those with a low need for cognition. As such, long trials, complex cases and long deliberations can be particularly challenging. This may seem intuitive, but I would argue lawyers do not, but should, seek to eliminate jurors with a low need for cognition.
The second personality variable that appeared prominently in the Colorado v. Laura Trujillo deliberations was a high need for closure. Such individuals desire predictability, prefer order and structure, and show discomfort with ambiguity; they are ultimately very decisive and closed-minded. Jury deliberations rarely offer predictability, order and structure. Further, jurors often have to deal with ambiguity and contradictory evidence. A person with a high need for closure would find jury deliberations frustrating and would take many opportunities to minimize discussion. The Trujillo jurors with this need for closure engaged in disturbing interpersonal behavior throughout the deliberations, but especially after the fifth hour. They even engaged in character assassinations of other jurors; one claimed she was horrified by the moral values of many of the other people in the room. These jurors would interrupt others to shut down their arguments. Further, they would redirect the conversation to how they could end the jury deliberations and get out of the room.
As I watched these jury deliberations, my heart broke as I thought about Alize, who had been beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend, and Ricky Jackson, who spent 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. My dream is that we reform our system for choosing jurors. I would offer that lawyers should not look at demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status, race or gender to assess whether a person is appropriate for a specific jury but rather they should assess people’s ability to deal deliberately with complex, ambiguous legal cases using their high need for cognition and low need for closure. My nightmares are complex and heart wrenching as I think of all the people who have been wrongfully convicted and are still in prison serving time for a crime they did not commit, but my dreams are simple. Social psychologists have the tools to aid the legal system. We simply have to use them for good.