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Inviting jurors to actually ‘speak the truth’ in voir dire (and why they often don’t)

Monday, November 23, 2009
posted by Rita Handrich

dr-house“Everybody lies”—or so says the protagonist on Fox TV’s popular medical drama, “House”. Gregory House is Vicodin-addicted, self-centered, and a brilliant diagnostician—and he does indeed discover—that most of his patients lie about something which makes his task of discerning the real from the deception just a bit more difficult.

So it is in voir dire. But why? The questions that are being asked don’t often seem that personally important and when they are truly of an intimate nature (as with sex abuse history), they are typically asked outside the hearing of other jurors. So why would jurors lie about more routine things? Researchers have proposed multiple explanations.

  • Jurors are intimidated (afraid of what others may think or of embarrassed about expressing their opinions).
  • Jurors want to look good and thus give responses they think are socially positive.
  • Jurors want to protect their self-image and self-esteem in front of all the courtroom observers and other prospective jurors.

While there are likely other reasons jurors lie, there is certainly agreement that jurors do lie (Keene and Handrich 2005). So, if you know it’s likely to happen—what can you do to minimize it?

Believe it or not, there is one simple answer: Use a supplemental juror questionnaire (SJQ). When given privacy (and a thoughtfully-written questionnaire), jurors are more likely to engage in voir ecrire (“to write the truth”). Factors such as social discomfort, a desire to please, or an attraction to a fellow juror or jurors—can derail your voir dire before you know it.

Get it in writing—and then increase their comfort by reframing bias in a positive light.

There are only two ways of telling the complete truth–anonymously and posthumously. –Thomas Sowell (1930 – )

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