Do juror pressures lead to unfair verdicts?

Image of Jury with black shadows of people, representing a full jury.From: APA

By: By Monica K. Miller, PhD, JD, University of Nevada–Reno
Brian H. Bornstein, PhD, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Three days before Christmas, a New York jury told their judge they were deadlocked after deliberating for more than 11 hours. Judge Barbara Kahn ordered them to continue deliberating and said they would return the next day if they did not reach a verdict. An hour later, the jury found the defendant, John White, guilty of manslaughter. Two jurors reportedly were leaning toward acquittal but changed their minds because of the judge’s orders and hostile fellow jurors.

The defendant’s attorneys are considering an appeal, stating that the judge’s order influenced the verdict by unfairly pressuring jurors who were in the minority (i.e., favoring an acquittal). Psychological research concerning social and time pressure indicate that these concerns may have merit.

Juries under stress

The U.S. Supreme Court has approved instructions ordering a deadlocked jury to continue deliberations, often referred to as a “dynamite charge.” For instance, the judge may tell jurors “a dissenting juror should consider whether his doubt was a reasonable one which made no impression upon many men, equally honest as himself” (Allen v. U.S., 1896; p. 501). The National Center for State Courts reports that hung juries occur in about 6 percent of cases. Hung juries tax the judicial system and prolong the process through retrials. Such instructions are an attempt to avoid this outcome.

A judge’s dynamite charge could make jurors feel coerced into changing their votes. It also leads those in the majority to exert more pressure on jurors in the minority. More broadly, this research suggests that minority jurors are not conforming based on informational influence (i.e., because they are actually persuaded), but because of normative influence (i.e., because of social pressure). Informational influence is an inherent part of the process, whereby some jurors seek to convince others of the rightness of their position. Jurors should not make decisions because of normative pressure from other jurors, which is likely to be exacerbated by a dynamite charge. Nevertheless, the procedure has been upheld (Lowenfield v. Phelps, 1988), and codified in many states (e.g., 17 AZ Rev. Statutes, Rules of Criminal Procedure, 22.4).

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