A new Northwestern University study shows that juries in criminal cases are reaching incorrect verdicts. The study, which looked at 271 cases in four areas of Illinois, found that as many as one in eight juries is making the wrong decision – by convicting an innocent person or acquitting a guilty one.
In each case, while the jury deliberated, the judge filled out a questionnaire detailing what his or her verdict would have been had it been a bench trial. The verdicts only matched in 77 percent of cases. The study assumed that judges are at least as likely as a jury to make a correct verdict, leading to the conclusion that juries are only correct 87 percent of the time or less.
The study was conducted by Bruce Spencer, a Northwestern statistics professor, and will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Spencer said in a statement that it would take a much larger study to truly predict the accuracy of jury verdicts nationwide in all cases.—The Innocence Project
I’ve been saying this for years. Democracy and decisions by small groups don’t necessarily arrive at the right answer. These methods were an improvement on the divine right of kings, and that was great 200 years ago. But they’re not the be-all and end-all of government. Sometimes–most of the time actually–majorities get it wrong. Even if they get the right answer, it’s often for the wrong reasons. Without critical thinking and hard evidence, people are subject to persuasion (see Manufacturing Consent), and use “gut feelings,” which is a very messy and imprecise process. Lawyers all know that trials are won and lost with jury selection. So a hand-picked jury (using peremptory challenges) becomes the key–with jury experts bringing psychological profiling into the courtroom to determine outcomes.
I’m not saying change it overnight. But we need to stop putting blind faith in non-experts to resolve critical questions, especially where lives hang in the balance. We need to stop pretending jury selection is anything other than the most cynical strategic manipulation. Instead of letting experts pick a jury of pawns, let’s create a panel of objective experts in guilt, innocence, ethics and civil liability–trained critical thinkers who will put aside their emotions and spot the flaws in the lawyer’s arguments, and examine evidence impartially. This could be a position of great honor, similar to a judge, but professional rather than appointed or elected.
By whatever means necessary, let’s put an end to this inaccurate farce we call “trial by jury.”