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Psychology in the Courtroom

Essay by   •  October 17, 2013  •  Research Paper  •  2,339 Words (10 Pages)  •  939 Views

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Abstract

How human beings judge others has been the subject of many psychological studies over the years. In this paper, psychology in the legal arena is discussed including jury selection, juror life experiences and how it affects their biases, and the impact of the media on their decisions.

Jury Selection and Its Importance

Juries have the all too important task of making life altering decisions dealing with money, freedom, and many times life or death situations. Therefore, serving on a jury is a very serious and important proposition. Unfortunately, in today's society it appears that many times juries are selected in a rather casual manner. Many individuals called to jury service, especially those with a higher education or in a higher economic echelon, can find ways to escape their civic duty, while those who are less educated and theoretically less qualified for jury service, end up serving on the jury and making critical decisions.

A fairly new trend in jury selection is that of trial consulting, which gained notoriety in the mid 1990's in the O.J. Simpson trial. The application of scientific jury selection (SJS) was first applied in 1971, and has grown tremendously in recent years for those who have the means to employ such methods.

The goal of the trial consultant is to find persons to fill the jury seats who optimally will arrive at a decision that will be favorable to their client. The tools used by the trial consultant include "...community surveys, focus groups, mock trials, pretrial investigations of prospective jurors, and voir dire assistance." (Cleary, 2005, p.3).

It appears that in the O.J. Simpson case in the mid 1990's, the trial consultant hired by his team did an effective job as Simpson was acquitted of all charges. However, there are those that believe the Simpson verdict was an anomaly and the outcome would have been the same with or without a trial consultant.

Whatever the means, the selection of a jury should never be taken lightly and jury duty should be mandatory, even for those who believe they are above serving.

The Purpose and Goal of Voir Dire

Voir dire is the process by which prospective jurors are questioned so their beliefs and attitudes can be examined to determine whether biases or prejudices exist. (Marder, 2005).

There are two (2) types of voir dire in practice: limited and Expansive. Limited voir dire usually entails a small number of questions non-specific to the trial. Jurors are questioned in a group and the questioning is usually done by the judge.

On the flip side, an expansive voir dire consists of a large number of questions with a much broader range. The judges along with the attorneys trying the case all question the jurors in an individual sequestered private setting. (Hans & Jehle, 2003).

The main purpose of the voir dire process is to determine whether any of the prospective jurors may have a potential bias when determining the outcome of the case. Therefore, the goal is to weed out those jurors who may have some pre-existing prejudice towards issues that may be involved in the case they will hear at trial.

All in all, expansive voir dire appears to be much more effective than limited for various reasons. First, jurors are more likely to divulge personal or embarrassing information within an individual setting rather than a group setting. Second, attorneys who are extremely familiar with the case may be able to obtain more relevant information from a potential juror, than a judge who was just assigned the trial. And, finally, the larger and broader range of questions in an expansive voir dire can reveal biases or concerns a prospective juror may not have even been aware of. (Hans & Jehle, 2003).

Although an expansive voir dire may be more time consuming and not cost effective, because of its effectiveness in weeding out inappropriate jurors, it should be made a mandatory practice if trials are to be completely fair and unbiased.

The Impact of a Juror's Life Experience Upon Their Decision Making

There is no doubt that a juror's life experience can have a tremendous influence on their decision making. Therefore, their real life attitudes will influence how jurors will view a case, including the facts, arguments, and ultimately the law they apply. (Heaney).

"Interpretive bias" is a psychological term that alludes to the fact that "...jurors view a case through the prism of their experiences and beliefs." (Gabriel, p.730). This phenomenon appears to be more prevalent in high profile cases as jurors then have a chance to hear, read, and see information reported by the media regarding the case.

If a juror has had a negative experience with the police, that juror may be less willing to trust the testimony or actions of the police department in a criminal trial. Other such life experiences with issues such as race, wealth, domestic abuse, celebrity, etc.... can cloud a juror's thought processes and perceptions regarding the parties involved in the case and the final outcome.

Whether Jurors are Guided By Sympathy or a Standard of Social Duty

Jurors appear to understand that they should not let sympathy color their judgment when evaluating testimony. (Atlas, 2003). However, jurors are only human and sympathy as well as empathy are emotions the majority of us share.

The question of sympathy versus social duty arises when the jury verdict in the Rodney King case is examined. King was stopped by Los Angeles police in the early 1990's and appeared to have been unduly beaten by the police in a videotape that a bystander captured of the incident. King pressed charges against the police officers who he accused of using excessive force. King, an African American male who had a criminal record, was not a sympathetic character in the eyes of the all white jury. The jury found the policemen to be innocent and public outrage ensued resulting in the Los Angeles riots. Many believed the jury felt sympathy for the police involved, Officers Koon and Powell, because the officers were white and King was a man of color with a criminal record. (Marder, 2005).

One juror explained the decision by stating, "'I believe there was excessive use of force, but under the law as it was explained to us we had to identify specific "hits" that would show specific use of force.

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