Peer pressure and the issue of conformity often confronts teenagers who are trying to adjust to becoming adults, but those same issues appear to be influencing Indiana juries during the deliberation process, according to a recently released study.
Researchers from ThemeVision and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found a strong relationship between forepersons and vocal jurors and the final verdict of a trial.
The study “Deliberation Quality: A Preliminary Examination in Criminal Juries” takes a look at what juries do behind closed doors during the deliberation process. The researchers in the study believed the deliberation process is understudied in published literature and wanted to tackle the subject, said Dennis Stolle, president of ThemeVision, which is affiliated with Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg. The focus of studies have often been how individual jurors reach their decisions in actual trials or an examination of mock trials and how their juries deliberate because of the difficulty in gaining access to actual juries.
“Certainly this has never been done in Indiana before,” Stolle said, referring to how some judges in Arizona allow state court access for studies.
Data for the study came from questionnaires distributed to judges, lead attorneys, and jurors involved in criminal cases in Marion and Allen counties. The questionnaire for jurors was customized to find answers to what happens behind the curtain, said Dennis Devine, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at IUPUI and researcher on the study.
“The juror questionnaire very much focused on unobservable things, things we hope as a community they are doing right,” he said.
Immediately after trial, judges would note the survey and it was distributed to capitalize on the juror’s memories and increase the chances they would participate. Questions asked about when and how many votes the jury took and the distribution of votes on the first vote; procedures the jury used to gather input from people, such as whether everyone on the jury got to speak before a first vote was taken.
Usable data was collected for 179 criminal juries, with 88 percent consisting of 12 members and the remaining juries consisting of six members. Seventy-seven percent of judges responded; 49 percent of prosecuting attorneys and 38 percent of defense attorneys also responded to their questionnaires.
After analyzing the data, one of the major results from the study shows the foreperson’s initial verdict stance was strongly related to jury verdicts, something Devine found surprising. While surprised, the results do make sense. When you put six or 12 strangers together in a new environment, it makes sense the foreperson will have procedural influence and may put pressure on people to vote, he said.
Stolle didn’t find the results to be surprising because of his involvement with mock juries to help clients prepare for trials.
“When I conduct mock trials, I see this phenomenon all the time – a few vocal jurors advocating strongly for a position, some going with the flow and saying little. In that sense, it wasn’t surprising,” he said. “It was surprising to see the statistical relationship between foreperson and faction leader.”
According to the study, about 25 percent of the time deliberations created faction leaders arguing for each side from the beginning of the deliberation process. In addition to the foreperson’s initial verdict stance being related to the jury verdicts, juries were also more likely to acquit when a salient faction leader favored acquittal.
“There was a nice strong relationship between a pro-acquittal leader emerging and a pro-acquittal verdict,” Devine said. “We didn’t get the same on the pro-conviction side.”
Devine suspects for an acquittal verdict, someone has to stand up and be the instigator to get the ball rolling, which isn’t the case for a pro-conviction side.
One reason for the influence of the foreperson or faction leaders could be the need to conform to the group. In groups and teams, which is Devine’s main focus of research, conformity is a strong influence on decision. Humans are social creatures taught to be polite and not confront one another.
“If someone speaks up, there is the social cost to saying ‘I don’t necessarily agree with that.’ In some small way, you look like the bad guy. In situations where people don’t know each other, I think that’s magnified,” he said.
People are or aren’t speaking up in the deliberation process because they want to reach a verdict sooner or perhaps are too shy to speak in the group, Stolle said. The foreperson or faction leader might believe his or her opinion of the evidence must be that of everyone else’s, especially when people don’t speak up otherwise.
Another interesting point gleamed from the study is that a fair number of juries were participating in early voting, said Stolle. The jurors leave the courtroom, go into the deliberation room, select a foreperson, and then soon after take a vote.
“That was interesting to us because that’s probably not an ideal way to go about deliberation,” he said. “Literature on group decision making says a better way to do it is to systematically gather everyone’s opinions and look at evidence, then later take a vote after everyone has had an opportunity to consider the evidence.”
Twenty percent of the juries polled took their first vote before much, if any, discussion of the evidence took place, and only 41 percent reported opinions were systematically gathered from jurors on the major issues. Only a quarter of juries reported systematically going around the table and hearing all the members’ views before a first vote.
Results from the study can be used as a catalyst to bring changes to the jury deliberation process. Stolle suggested that as part of juror orientation, the judge, bailiff, or court staff involved in instructing jurors may also emphasize the jury’s role is to act as a group, and the importance of systematically gathering everyone’s opinions before voting.
Devine believes the jury instructions could be emphasized even more by judges before sending the jury off to vote. Even though the study found most juries reported understanding the jury instruction, some questionnaires had notes written on the side saying that the respondent understood the instructions but he or she didn’t believe others on the jury did, he said.
“To whatever extent, instructions could be made more user-friendly. That could improve the quality of jury deliberation,” Devine said.
Being cognizant of strong leaders during the deliberation process may also help to curb the influence of the foreperson or faction leader. Devine suggested attorneys ask potential jurors how they would approach the deliberation process, how he or she functions in a group; and what do you do if someone doesn’t agree with your opinion. Stolle agreed attorneys may be able to nip this in the bud during jury selection.
“As a trial lawyer, as part of that process where you are trying to reduce risk, you need to ID people likely to be leaders and decide whether you want to exercise strike on that person,” he said.
While the results of the study may or may not be surprising to those in the legal world, the researchers believe juries in Indiana are in general doing pretty well when it comes to reaching a verdict. The questionnaires of the judges and attorneys involved in the 179 criminal trials examined showed their ratings of strength of the case of evidence presented at trial highly correlated with the juries’ opinions, Stolle said.