Thursday, January 3, 2008

Colorful juries more competent

At a holiday party, the topic of jury duty came up. Immediately, everyone started competing to tell how they "got out of" serving. That's too bad, I thought. These folks would all make fine jurors.

Last month, I was involved in a trial in which a group of citizens who did not shirk their civic duty voted to free a teenager facing life for a murder he did not commit. The defense attorney described the jury fondly as "colorful."

What's color got to do with it? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

A colorful, or racially diverse, group actually thinks better than a more homogeneous one. In a recent study, mixed-race juries performed better on all areas assessed, including:

  • Amount of information considered
  • Factual accuracy of deliberations
  • Thoroughness of analysis
  • Open-mindedness (especially about race)
Traditionally, people have assumed that the difference is because minority jurors bring different life experiences and perspectives to the group. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall put it more than 30 years ago, exclusion of "any large and identifiable segment of the community" removes "varieties of human experience" from the mix: "It is not necessary to assume that the excluded group will consistently vote as a class in order to conclude . . . that its exclusion deprives the jury of a perspective on human events that may have unsuspected importance in any case."

But new evidence suggests there is more to it than that: White jurors actually think more efficiently when they are faced with the prospect of being part of a diverse group. It's as if the goal of not being perceived as prejudiced, or of being accepted by others, switches the brain from autopilot to full-concentration mode.

In contrast, all-white juries tended to be lazy, inaccurate, superficial, and unwilling to discuss uncomfortable topics (especially race). At least that's what Samuel Sommers, the author of a recent study, found.

Interestingly, even bringing up the issue of race during voir dire questioning of potential jurors may increase open-mindedness and thoughtfulness, Sommers observed. (Asking questions like, for example, "Do you have any biases or prejudices that might prevent you from judging an African American defendant fairly?")

This makes sense, because modern racism is largely subtle and unconscious. In other words, people behave in biased ways while consciously thinking of themselves as fair-minded. So if you activate race as a salient issue, whites will more likely make conscious efforts to avoid prejudice.

The court-sponsored research used mock jurors who were drawn from actual jury pools in a Michigan county. The jurors were presented with a video of a Court TV case involving an African American man accused of sexually assaulting a white female.

Such research suggesting the superiority of multicultural juries is not likely to dissuade prosecutors from their frequent practice of removing Blacks through peremptory challenges. After all, predominately white juries are more punitive, especially toward non-white defendants. More thorough and efficient deliberations generally work in favor of the accused, especially if he is African American.

That's apparently what happened in the trial I just mentioned. After much deliberation, the "colorful" jury migrated from leaning toward guilt to outright acquittal.

Although I didn't get to be a fly on the wall inside of that deliberation room, I can imagine the scenario based on what I experienced when I served on a similarly colorful jury earlier this year. Unlike in the mock jury study described above, the case in which I was a juror did not explicitly involve race. The defendant, the victim, and the arresting officers all were white. Yet, as Justice Marshall predicted, the jury's diversity provided perspectives that would not otherwise have been considered. Several white jurors walked into the deliberations room ready to cast their vote (for guilty), thinking that the case was cut-and-dried. After a sometimes-heated discussion that lasted for days, they came to realize there was more to the case than initially met the eye. The vast economic and educational range - another great thing about American juries - also increased the range and quality of the deliberations.

I hope the above-described research is extended in the future to cases like this, in which race is not an explicit issue but still broadens (or colors, if you will) the deliberations.

* * * * *

The study is: Samuel Sommers (2006), "On racial diversity and group decision making: Identifying multiple effects in racial composition on jury deliberations," Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp. 597-612.

Other resources:

"Racial Bias in Jury Selection is Common Yet Denied, Study Finds"

"Jurors deliberate competently, study finds"

Samuel Sommers & Michael Norton (2006), "Race-based judgments, race-neutral justifications: Experimental examination of peremptory use and the Batson challenge procedure," Law & Human Behavior.

Jury & Democracy Project

"Harmful effects of unintentional racism"

Antonio et al (2004), "Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students," Psychological Science, Vol. 15, pp. 507-510.

Joel Lieberman and Bruce Sales, Scientific Jury Selection (see my review at Amazon.com)

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