Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fewer Jurors Means Less Justice

What do the trials of George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony and Troy Davis all have in common?  

The answer could be that their outrageous outcomes stem from the fewer number of jurors who decided their fate.

Of these three cases, two were tried in Florida and the latter was tried in Georgia.  Florida and Georgia are among five U.S. states that don't require 12 jurors to unanimously agree on a verdict.  The other three are Arizona, Oregon and Louisiana.

In Oregon and Louisiana, a twelve person jury may be used but they need not reach a unanimous verdict. It's more akin to a popularity contest than it is to a criminal trial.

Incidentally, these are also five states where prejudices such as racism and homophobia are known to be rampant - even recognized as such by the Federal Government in legislation such as the Voting Rights Act which aims to reduce voter disenfranchisement.

In Florida and Georgia, a person can be sentenced to death by just six people.  This is what happened to Troy Davis, whom a majority of the public now believes was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted.   Alternately, it also means that murder and manslaughter charges can be acquitted by only six people - which is the case with both Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman in two other highly contested outcomes.

The thematic facts of these three cases bear very little resemblance to one another - but the verdicts seem to defy popular public opinion.   In contrast, one could present a case where they believe a 12-person jury delivered the wrong verdict, such as the O.J. Simpson trial.  But the O.J. Simpson case would be an anomaly in this discussion because most capital criminal cases are settled by a unanimous jury of twelve.

Furthermore, juries of twelve have been more likely over the years to deliver justice even when it rubs the general public the wrong way at first.  Then, when cooler heads have prevailed and hindsight returns to 20/20, we see that the jury was right after all.  Such is the case with the trial against the McMartin family whom twelve jurors finally absolved of any criminal conduct in a case that took two and a half years to complete.

The McMartins operated a preschool and were falsely accused of child molestation during a period of persecution in America known as "Satanic Panic".  Every news network in America was producing fantastic tales of devil worship, cannibalism and molestation intermingled with accusations of homosexuality and witchcraft.  Public consensus at the time would be that anyone who set foot in a courtroom was guilty until proven innocent.

Psychological Math

So what is it about twelve jurors that usually produces a more accurate or favorable outcome than six?  The answer to that question is one of psychology and sociology.

Smaller groups of quarantined or sequestered people are more susceptible to what's termed as "group think". A charismatic person can more easily influence five of his peers than he can eleven.  That is to say that a smaller jury can be more easily "bullied" into going against their better instincts.

When more people are introduced to a conversation, the likelihood of a contradicting opinion being presented is increased.  Therefore, there may now be two contradicting "bullies" in the jury and the democratic process takes hold.  Mild mannered fence sitters now have options and can decide that one of the bolder jurors is more correct in their opinions and assumptions.  It's like a trial within a trial.

The longer a jury spends deliberating, the more likely they are to reach a trustworthy conclusion.  Obviously, deliberations will last longer with bigger juries in most cases.  It only took a six person jury a total of 12 minutes to find Marissa Alexander guilty of a felony that put her behind bars for 20 years.  That Florida case is also widely regarded as an absolute miscarriage of justice.

By contrast the twelve member jury in the case against Scott Peterson deliberated for seven days and reached a verdict that most people were satisfied with.    Historically, the longest jury deliberations in criminal trials have come from the standard 12-person juries.  Additionally, the outcomes of those trials seem to have more "balance of opinion" in the actual verdicts and sentencing.  An example of this would be the Allen V. City Oakland case where a jury deliberated for four whopping months before rendering a partial verdict.

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