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Educating Jurors: How NOT to start deliberations

Monday, April 26, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve talked before about the importance of teaching jurors how to deliberate and here’s another take on that same topic. The always excellent Research Digest Blog recently did a post on the importance of NOT starting group discussions by sharing initial preferences. In brief, what they say is that doing a straw poll on preferences at the start of group discussion shuts down the following discussion. We simply do not pay attention to the novel information others may share once we have expressed our own preferences.

We see this routinely in deliberations of mock jurors. Those groups who begin deliberations with “Let’s see how close we are…” never have quite the same level of discussion as those groups whose presiding juror invites a consideration of the evidence for and against various charge elements. The implication is pretty clear. As you are educating jurors about the charge (using an enlarged copy of the jury questions)—you can also instruct them on the best way to begin deliberations. If they resist a premature vote they are likely to engage in a more thoughtful and considered verdict.

If, on the other hand, you want a verdict that relies on biases and stereotypes (and sometimes, this is indeed what you will want) then do not instruct them—or actually encourage them to take a straw poll when they get to the deliberation room.  The basis for the vote will shift from being fact-based to being belief-based, and is more likely to produce a more stereotyped, broad-stroke decision-making process. Just be sure you know what style of thinking/deliberating you want!

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