Jurors' comprehension of scientific evidence

October 04, 2001

As society becomes more technologically complex, people called for jury duty have an increasingly difficult task. In principle, jurors still have to come to a conclusion about the facts and then apply the law. However, the preponderance of novel scientific technology introduces new challenges to the jurors and impacts on their ability to assess the credibility of the evidence.

In this technologically complicated environment, when the facts require jurors to decide between two scientifically-based theories, and the law includes notions of causation that differ from their everyday sense of that concept, the decision making process necessarily becomes further complicated and difficult.

How well do jurors cope with these enhanced obligations? Professor Lawrence Solan of Brooklyn Law School attests that, "although recent research and recognized studies show jurors do well in general, there are a number of problems relating to the comprehension of scientific evidence that have been identified in recent empirical work. Among the problems that Dr. Solan identifies are:

- When scientific evidence becomes complex, juror comprehension diminishes.

- Jurors sometimes can be inappropriately influenced by the credentials of experts.

- Causation is a concept that people do not all understand the same way.

- The phenomenon of "hindsight bias:" believing that something that actually occurred must have been foreseeable, can impact on how jurors judge state of mind requirements.

- Deliberation sometimes leads to polarization around severe action when jurors have determined that the defendant is a bad actor, and around lenient action when jurors have determined that the defendant is not a bad actor, but is nonetheless liable.

- A good bit of scientific evidence is counterfactual in nature. People do better reasoning from mental models based on what is true rather than on what is false.
Dr. Solan will present his paper on "Jurors' Comprehension of Scientific Evidence" at the meeting of the National Conference on Science and the Law - Emerging Trends: Scientific Evidence in the Courtroom, October 4-6 in Miami, Florida. His paper will be part of his lunch talk on Saturday, October 6 during the Admissibility Hearing on Novel Scientific Evidence - A Case session.
About Professor Lawrence Solan

Professor Solan teaches Legislation and Statutory Interpretation, Remedies, and Property. He holds a Ph.D in linguistics and his scholarly works are devoted to exploring interdisciplinary issues related to language and the law. His highly acclaimed book, The Language of Judges (1993), is widely recognized as the seminal work on linguistics theory and legal argumentation. His expertise in this area has been called upon widely in the country and abroad and he regularly lectures on language and the law,, statutory and contractual interpretation, and textualism. Prior to joining the faculty in 1996, Professor Solan was a partner in the firm of Orans, Elson and Lupert, where he specialized in complex civil litigation. He is on the board of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.

About Brooklyn Law School

Brooklyn Law School is an independent law school with a student body of 1,500 representing every corner of the globe. Its world-class faculty have made significant contributions to legal scholarship, public service and the practice of law. Its graduates are distinguished members of the bench and bar and are prominent leaders in public service and private industry.

Brooklyn Law School

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