PUBLISHED:January 09, 2008

In praise of American juries

Jan. 9, 2008 ― The American jury system works, according to Duke Law Professor Neil Vidmar. While public perception of jury behavior may be shaped by controversial verdicts such as O.J. Simpson’s acquittal or the award of nearly $3 million in punitive damages to an elderly woman burned by hot McDonald's coffee, jurors generally take their duties extremely seriously and execute them well, Vidmar writes in his new book, American Juries: The Verdict, co-authored with Professor Valerie Hans of Cornell University Law School.

Social scientists, renowned scholars of the jury system, and collaborators on the 1986 book, Judging the Jury, Vidmar and Hans have been conducting empirical research on jury behavior for more than three decades. Their new book traces the evolution of the American jury system and explores how civil and criminal juries operate when faced with specific types of cases and testimony, and how they reach verdicts and make awards.

“Jurors become quite well-educated on the issues and the evidence through the course of a trial. They are capable of understanding complex issues and expert testimony,” says Vidmar, Russell M. Robinson II Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology. “When they go in to deliberate, they usually have enormous guidance from the trial judge. And when jurors are allowed to ask questions in the course of their deliberations, they display critical insights.”

They are also extremely careful about making awards, notes Vidmar, who co-led a groundbreaking four-year study of Arizona jury deliberations. “That project helped me realize how seriously jurors take their task. They go through doctors’ bills very carefully and will check even a pharmacy receipt for the replacement of a broken pair of glasses. When you review the data, you realize they are anything but irresponsible, as tort reform advocates claim. If anything, juries tilt the other way.” In medical malpractice cases, an area Vidmar has studied for more than 15 years, juries side with the doctors in three out of four cases that go to trial, he says.

The legal system adequately provides for corrections when juries do “get it wrong,” says Vidmar. A trial judge can reduce the damages if he or she feels the award is outrageous. It can be reduced or overturned on appeal. In most cases, he notes, the damages are reduced in post-trial negotiations between the parties. “Even in the rare whopping punitive damages cases the parties settle for payout of a fraction of the amount awarded ― or nothing at all. But the media only reports the huge jury award, not the fact that it never gets paid.”

The sole area where the jury system falls down, according to Vidmar and Hans, involves capital cases. “‘Death’ is different ― there are serious problems. But they aren’t all the juries’ fault,” observes Vidmar, noting that the trouble begins with a jury selection process guaranteed to exclude individuals who have reservations about imposing the death penalty. Jurors’ predisposition to sentence a defendant to death can prejudice their deliberations regarding guilt, he says, adding that the problems are compounded by the fact that most defendants lack the resources to challenge the state’s well-supported case and in some cases may not be competently represented by counsel. Jurors might not be hearing both sides of the story.

What does Vidmar hope to accomplish with the book, which will be the subject of a scholarly conference in Montreal in March? “I’m hopeful that our chapter on death penalty cases will lead to some understanding of the problems in the system, whether you are for or against capital punishment,” says Vidmar. “The process of trying these cases needs to be examined.

“We also want to counter a lot of the negative publicity about the jury system,” says Vidmar. “We hope to have an impact on policymakers, legislators, and judges ― who are overwhelmingly supportive of the jury system, in fact. We also hope that journalists and members of the public ― the jurors ― will understand that the system works. For the most part, juries do a good job.”
American Juries: The Verdict is published by Prometheus Books.