On trial: How juries reach their verdicts

The Sunday Times:


The film Twelve Angry Men depicts jurors changing their mind during deliberation (Kobal Collection)

A UNIQUE judicial experiment in which 12 separate juries watched the same trial and came up with different verdicts has led to new calls for an investigation of the jury system.

In the mock trial Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, played the role of an armed robber who stole £68,000 from a betting shop after threatening the staff with a shotgun. Vincent Regan, a film actor, played the role of a firearms expert.

The judge Michael Mettyear, the recorder of Hull and East Riding, who sits on the sentencing guidelines panel, came up with the idea for the experiment and real barristers presented the case. The juries were each put together by the 12 foremen, who were invited to take part by the judge.

“I thought it would be interesting to see if a number of juries listening to the same facts and evidence would come to different conclusions,” Mettyear said.

He was proved right. Johnson, whose character worked as a window cleaner and was recognised by a customer as he made his getaway, was cleared by 10 of the juries and was convicted by two.

“It was not a scientific experiment as real-life juries are selected at random from a diverse range of people, but it is something that really ought to be looked at and how they [juries] reach their verdicts,” Mettyear said.

“I think there needs to be more research into juries’ verdicts.”

The 12 different sets of jurors were also asked to give their views on an appropriate sentence and Johnson was “jailed” for 15 years.

“One set of jurors requested that I was given community service working with Nigel Farage for 15 months,” Johnson said.

“It was very instructive. Most people have no contact whatsoever with the criminal law or the court system and how it works.

“The jury system needs more investigation. They [juries] are an important part of the British constitution but [this] showed that even though I was as guilty as hell they had to be sure beyond reasonable doubt to convict me and that is very difficult. The first time many people are involved with the process is [usually] when a letter arrives inviting them for jury service.”

Although there is widespread belief in the system, relatively little is known about the deliberations of juries and how they reach their verdicts.


The mock trial, in which the former home secretary Alan Johnson played an armed robber

The Contempt of Court Act forbids anyone to “obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced, or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberation”, making it difficult for research to be conducted.

Mettyear and Johnson both backed calls for further research into the system. A report by University College London in 2010 entitled Are Juries Fair? concluded that verdicts were based on the evidence and the law.

The researchers looked at the effectiveness of juries and found that, once sworn in, juries reached verdicts by deliberation on 89% of all charges and were discharged after failing to reach a verdict in fewer than 1% of cases.

Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, has defended the system in the past but suggested there should be more research into how juries reach their decisions. “Trial by jury is an essential element of the justice system . . . The right of the jury to return the verdict it collectively believes is the true one is inalienable,” he said.

“It is essential that juries are trusted to take decisions, with proper direction, even if very occasionally those decisions will not accord with the view that lawyers, judges or the crown may hold. It is perhaps surprising that so little research has been done on jury decision-making.”

Damian Green, a justice minister, said the government was committed to continuing to support such research. “Research into the jury system, working with actual jurors at courts, has concluded that verdicts were based on the evidence and the law,” he said. “We continue to support research into jury decision-making.”

Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said: “This is a really interesting and important area of work. “Very little has been done to understand how juries behave and why. This research could shed crucial light on the workings of juries and provide a clearer understanding of how justice is delivered.”

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6 Responses

  1. The evidence was eye witness identification, and 70% of eye witness identifications are wrong. Johnson says “The first time many people are involved with the process is [usually] when a letter arrives inviting them for jury service.” but he apparently didn’t know the jury “had to be sure beyond reasonable doubt.” This suggests that it’s the politicians who should be investigated.

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  2. What was the possible alternative finding? That the juries would all arrive at the same decision? This could be arranged, of course, by making the evidence very flimsy or very convincing. In the same way, there would always be gray cases where different people would disagree. So, as far as the newspaper description goes this experiment showed nothing.

    And, obviously, inevitably, the same is true for professional judges. In this case some statistics could be gathered based on the frequency of split decisions in multi-judge panels.

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  3. They ran “Twelve Angry Men” on the TV here at about the time Keith did his duty as a citizen.
    In spite of being a Hollywood (don’t like Hollywood) film (don’t like films, not even Orson Wells) on the TV (don’t like TV), it makes one think. The unlikely hero (Mr Average Citizen) on his fiery steed “Illocution” charges across the Far West as far as Chicago, carrying all before him, saving a defenceless, unpopular youth from the wrong side of the tracks, along with the nation’s faith in the American way of life, and the blind and innocent maiden Justice from the clutches of . . . other average citizens and their prejudice, their boredom, and their burning desire to go home and see the ball game.
    Was the right decision made for all the wrong reasons? Or the wrong decision made for all the right reasons?
    What about a comment, Keith?

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  4. The trial jury’s task is to weigh the evidence against the charge, which then only indirectly elevates ‘as fact’ the guilt or innocence of the accused. The evidence rarely speaks for itself, but requires interpretation, belief in witnesses and the identification of mere circumstance, So subjectivity is required in jury determinations. There is no “right” decision. It is unreasonable to expect all juries to achieve exactly the same confidence in a charge with the sort of loose ends that any mock trial would surely have. The big story is that juries continue to be discredited on contestable grounds.

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  5. Campbell:> What about a comment, Keith?

    Goodness me, it’s not often that I have to be invited to comment, so here goes. When I was called last year for jury duty I was struck by the fact that we received no procedural advice from the judge, other than to elect a spokesperson and then reach a unanimous verdict. We were fortunate that there was an ideal candidate for foreman (who happened to work as a mediator in the family courts) and he chaired the deliberations brilliantly and impartially. But there was no acknowledgement from the court authorities that jury deliberations can easily be swayed by factors like the order of presentation of opinions, or recognition of the great stock of social psychology research on how group dynamics can distort deliberative outcomes (Festinger (1950), Deutsch & Gerard (1955), Baumeister & Leary (1995), Janis (1972), Brown (1988), etc. etc.).

    I was, like the Henry Fonda character, convinced the defendant was innocent, and took up my illocutionary lance to prove it. I managed to persuade one of my wavering colleagues, so we were unable to come to a verdict and the jury was dismissed. I’m convinced that, if I was not on the jury, the guy would have gone down, so the verdict we returned was an entirely unrepresentative one.

    This is entirely appropriate when dealing with an epistemic decision (guilt or innocence); however political juries are indicating preferences (albeit, hopefully, coloured by epistemic considerations). Representativity certainly does require consistency and, I would argue, silent deliberation and voting, in order to stop loudmouths like me distorting the representativity of the decision. So if there is a case for multiple juries in criminal trials there is an even stronger case for political juries as, if the verdicts of each jury differs, which one indicates the informed consent of the silent masses? Arguably nobody cares very much if some poor innocent is sent down for a crime she didn’t commit, but if a political jury puts up the price of bread (or decides that the taxpayer should fund tertiary education) then this affects everyone, so the representativity of the jury is absolutely crucial. From the perspective of perceived legitimacy, it strikes me that experiments with allotted legislative assemblies would require multiple juries (along with identical advocacy and silent deliberation and voting), and the bill would only be deemed to have passed if there was unanimity between the verdict of the different juries. If I didn’t draw one of the golden tickets myself I could only accept the verdict if it were demonstrated that my presence or absence would have made no difference to the outcome, otherwise I would be required to assent to an entirely arbitrary decision.

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  6. […] The persuasive juror who manages to sway the majority through his passion, eloquence and irresistible logic is part of Western cultural lore. It appears that one commenter on this blog even perceives himself as having played that very role. […]

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