Are Jury Trials Truly Fair?

Anybody falsely accused of a crime will tell you that jury trials are not 100% foolproof. In 2003, authors Peter Scheck and Peter Neufeld published an eye-opening expose on wrongful convictions. Since that time, in excess of 1,400 innocent people have been exonerated. 

Fairness and Representation 

A pool of jurors are selected and meant to be representative of the gender, racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic makeup of the United States. Today’s juries are supposed to more closely resemble the American populace, thanks to these amendments: 

  • 19th Amendment, Women’s Suffrage 
  • 24th amendment, Poll Tax abolition
  • 26th amendment, the ability to vote as of the age of 18
  • The voting rights act of 1964, which eliminated literacy tests

In spite of amendments and efforts to equalize the system, trials for high-profile criminals have given the impression that jury selection is easily manipulated by lawyers who seek to select jurors that will be friendly to their cause. Add to that pressure on a jury to deliver a verdict quickly even if they are deadlocked and you have a recipe for a possibly unfair verdict.

Sometimes jurors get impatient because the process takes too long. When deadlocked juries are ordered by a judge to continue deliberations, it is called a dynamite charge. When this happens, the American Psychological Association says that jurors may change their votes because they feel pressured into delivering a verdict before they are ready.

Pretrial Publicity 

With social media and television ubiquitous across society, it is almost impossible for a juror to be unbiased. In the face of media exposure in a high-profile case, finding the right jurors can be difficult. 

Sometimes when media coverage is regional or just local, moving the trial to a different location, for example to a different county, may fix the problem. But if it is a national case that is very prominent, like in a murder case, it’s almost impossible to find even 12 jurors who have not already formed an opinion. 

The Extent That Juries Should Be Active 

Traditionally, juries examined evidence and listened to arguments presented during trial. Over time, attorney rebuttals and trials themselves have become more complex and longer, so how a jury performs its duty has been debated and somewhat changed.

At this time, every state allows jurors to take notes during trial. Increasingly, jurors may also submit questions to the judge for witnesses or are given notebooks of exhibits or written copies of instructions from the judge. These measures require a jury to be more active during the trial. The process is thought to improve decision-making, but the practices are not uniform among states, calling into question exactly how active juries should actually be.

Personal Privacy 

In cases with violent criminals, members of a jury often worry about threats to their well-being after the trial. There’s also concern that some will speak to the media during a trial. In response to these problems, some judges have granted anonymity to certain jurors. One of the best examples of juror anonymity is in the trial of Waco cult leader David Koresh, when jury members feared for their lives. Critics see juror anonymity as the beginning of a closed courtroom system, which could negatively affect checks and balances offered by a public setting.

Psychologists continue to study the effects of social behavior and pressure on the outcome of jurors’ decisions, as jurisdictions decide on reforms. The vast majority of decisions that are handed down are not overturned, so the process is seemingly only slightly flawed. Fortunately, it is dynamic and always being improved upon.

What Next?

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