Persuasion Matters

Because I Said So: Admonishing the Jury

 

I recently witnessed a state court trial judge do something I wish all judges would do.  When swearing in the jury the trial judge actually explained why certain things were on the “must not do” list.  I wanted to run up to the bench and give her a high-five, but instead I maintained proper courtroom demeanor and simply expressed an ever-so-slight head nod.

People of all ages benefit from understanding the logic that fuels a directive.  I’ll bet every single reader can think of a rule, directive or instruction that was completely disregarded or pooh-poohed because the effects of engaging in the behavior were thought to be inconsequential.  Unfortunately, the same thing often happens with our jurors.

Google, smart phones, and 24/7 internet access present many challenges in the courtroom.  Jury panels are routinely instructed not to Google or to conduct research any person, fact or or issue related to the case, yet they continue to do so.  Why?  My theory is this: jurors need more than a “because-I-said-so.”    Jurors are rarely told why following the instruction is so important.  It’s very difficult to avoid something as routine as hopping online or using our iPhones to gather information unless we can fully appreciate the negative ramifications of doing so.

This particular judge did exactly that.  Not only did she instruct the panel to avoid Googling or conducting research during the trial, but she gave jurors multiple reasons why her admonishment should be considered important enough to be respected and followed.

  1. What you read on the internet or in the press isn’t always true.  It’s not fair to the parties for you to be influenced by misinformation.
  2. If you read something about the case, it’s not fair to the attorneys or the parties they represent because they are not able to respond or to provide “the rest of the story. If the information is untrue, they are not able to provide you with the truth.”
  3. If you conduct research of any kind, it could cause a mistrial which would result in a total waste of your time, my time and the taxpayer’s money because the case would have to be tried all over again with a new jury.  That’s not fair to any of us.
  4. If you were a party involved in a lawsuit, would you want the jury to rely on outside information?  No, because that wouldn’t be fair to you.

The real kicker?  This judge not only provided reasons to the jury for such admonishments, but she tied in the universal truth of fairness.  Jurors across the country want to be fair, and they often render verdicts based on their perception of fairness and conduct of the parties.  The judge–whether she consciously realized it or not– shifted some of her power to the jury.  She empowered them to make a good choice.  The fair choice.  The right choice.

Will every juror follow her instruction to avoid Google and research?  I’d like to say absolutely, but I’m not that naive.  But I do adamantly believe that the jurors take their jobs very seriously and will do their best to be fair.  And if Google, media and blogging is viewed as an “unfair” behavior?  I think jurors will try harder to avoid it.

Just my two cents.

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