Study Finds Jury Duty May Be "Too Complex"

November 20, 1998

People who sit on juries are unable to comprehend the instructions set out to guide their decision-making, leading to the conclusion that "the task required of jurors may be too complex," a new Simon Fraser University study has determined.

The three-year study involved 545 participants in day-long "mock" jury exercises and also revealed a lack of comprehension in each of 10 alternate strategies for providing jury instruction tested by researchers.

"Overall, without a doubt, the results indicate that people have a great deal of difficulty comprehending jury instructions," says SFU psychology professor Jim Ogloff, who has been conducting jury research since 1985. In his latest study, undertaken from 1995 to this past summer, Ogloff found juries have just as much difficulty - if not more - understanding and recalling instructions concerning key terms, such as "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," as they do comprehending substantive instructions for offenses such as aggravated assault and attempted murder.

"These results raise very serious questions about the extent to which the accused can be guaranteed, in the case of a jury trial, that they are 'proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal'," says Ogloff. "Quite the contrary, the findings here suggest that study participants often rendered their verdicts in ignorance of the law and legal standards."

People recruited from the community to serve as mock jurors, all of whom were eligible for jury duty, watched a video re-enactment of an actual case, played out by actors or by actual judges and lawyers, which had been condensed for study purposes. They later deliberated the case and ended the day with a verdict.

The study also found that out of a maximum two-hour deliberation period, jurors on average spent only 73 seconds discussing the judicial instructions they were given, and on the rare occasions when they attempted to define them, they did so correctly only 60 per cent of the time.

Anecdotes recorded during deliberation confirm the difficulties facing jurors, notes Ogloff. One mock juror said: "If the judge gives all these rules, one gets very confused. One cannot possibly remember them, or even relate to them, being a lay person." Another said the judge, "just went on and on, and by that time I had already made up my mind, before I had listened to her."

Disconcerting to Ogloff was the fact that none of the alternative strategies for instructing juries proved to be particularly effective. Strategies ranged from "plain language" instructions to note-taking and written copies of instructions.

Another involved a technique developed by Ogloff and fellow researchers, called a "decision-tree," which provides a structured approach to jury deliberation.

"This procedure breaks down the numerous questions that jurors have to consider when deciding whether the elements of the instructions are satisfied, and enables jurors to focus on and use the jury instructions to guide their decision-making one step at a time," says Ogloff, suggesting the strategy didn't work in its first-ever test because jurors failed to actually use it. "This interactive method enables jurors to ask judges questions about the instructions at important junctures during the course of their deliberation."

Ogloff believes the decision-tree strategy can work, and says further study should confirm it. "Instead of changing the way we do things," insists Ogloff, "we need to look at changing the way we expect those who sit on juries to make their decisions."

Ogloff also hopes to expand his research to assess the relationship between jury comprehension of instructions and verdict reliability.

The research was conducted through SFU's law and psychology lab at the mental health, law and policy institute, with funding from the B. C. Law Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is also supported by the SFU jury advisory board, made up of judges and law faculty.

Ogloff has undertaken several studies relating to jury decision-making and has looked at the impact of graphic photographic evidence on mock jurors' decisions in murder trials, the influence of defendants' emotions during testimony and the impact of pretrial publicity on jurors.

Ogloff was last year elected president of the American Psychology Law Society. He is also involved in applying and designing new research and continues to work with lawyers and judges, providing expertise, training and workshops at their invitation.
Jim Ogloff, 291-3093
Marianne Meadahl, media/pr, 291-4323

Simon Fraser University

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