Birthers, deathers, and did you hear about Jimmy Hoffa?
Conspiracy theorists have been with us for perhaps, forever. Most recently we’ve been reading about birthers and deathers. But the idea of conspiracy theories goes beyond fringe elements. According to a recent issue of Rasmussen Reports, 53% of us believe elections are rigged to help incumbents in Congress. Sometimes, those espousing conspiracy theories are actually harmed when they jump from one conspiracy to the next [like Donald Trump, who has decided to serve mankind by not running for President] but often the new story and questions inherent in that story gain traction, because the implications are so salacious. And sometimes conspiracy theories appear to be true. The “possibilities” seduce and entice our imaginations.
We see it often in pre-trial research when there are holes in the case story and jurors fill in the holes with suspicions and ideas of conspiracy.
“I think there are things we don’t know about this story.”
“Someone is paying her off.”
“There is something between those two. You can just tell by looking at them.”
One of the questions we discuss with clients is “How will the jury fill in the missing information? To what conclusion does their intuition lead them?” Just a hint of suspicion in the absence of facts and the discussion can turn very ugly. But you learn about a land mine you never imagined. Often, the circumstances leading to a conspiracy theory are incompetence (the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing) or simple coincidence. But as has been said many times before, it’s impossible to disprove a conspiracy theory. And you don’t want jurors who support your case to try and advocate against a conspiracy theory in the deliberation room.
So pay attention to even the most far-fetched theories that come up in pre-trial research.
“I think the doctor and nurse had an affair and it ended badly.”
“I think they did steal the idea from [the inventor] and they are paying off their researcher to take the fall for it so they can blame him and not the whole company.”
“I have a feeling something strange is going on here and we need to question everything they told us. I think they are lying and I am not sure why.”
Knowledge of these crazy theories gives you a chance to head off wild speculation that may otherwise gain traction in the jury room. The more tightly constructed the case story, the fewer rabbit trails jurors follow.
Sullivan D, Landau MJ, & Rothschild ZK (2010). An existential function of enemyship: evidence that people attribute influence to personal and political enemies to compensate for threats to control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), 434-49 PMID: 20175623