Dateline: June, 2011, Issue 1

Which dissenting jurors hang juries and which conform to majority opinion?

The position of the juror who is a dissenter in deliberations is glorified in the movie Twelve Angry Men. But which jurors dissent, which hang the jury, and which simply acquiesce to the majority's wishes?

Waters and Hans (2008) investigated jurors who dissent from the majority on juries, and distinguished dissenters who hang the jury from dissenters who acquiesce to the majority opinion to allow a jury decision against the dissenter's individual wishes. Post-trial questionnaires were completed by 3,497 jurors from 382 criminal trials in four state court systems (Los Angeles County, CA; Maricopa County, AZ; Bronx County, NY; District of Columbia). Jurors were asked about their individual first ballot vote on the most serious charge, their own final vote on that charge, the vote split on the jury's first and final votes for the most serious charge, and their personal verdict in the case if the decision was entirely theirs as a "one-person jury".

A significant proportion of juries included jurors who dissented from the jury's verdict. Up to 54% of juries included at least one juror who reported an individual verdict preference that was contrary to the jury's verdict. When the jury acquitted or convicted the defendant, the most common dissenting faction size was one juror. When the trial resulted in a hung jury, the minority faction was often larger: half of the time the jury hung with three or more dissenters.

Acquittal-prone dissenters were more common than conviction-prone dissenters, and a dissenting juror favoring acquittal was almost three times more likely to hold out than a dissenting juror favoring conviction. When the jury's majority favored conviction, 35% of the dissenting jurors (i.e., those favoring acquittal) ultimately hung the jury. When the jury's majority favored acquittal, just 12.5% of dissenting jurors (i.e., those favoring conviction) hung the jury.

Dissenting jurors were skeptical as to whether all the relevant evidence was presented in the case, were more likely than majority jurors to feel that the evidence was difficult to understand, and believed that the legally correct outcome was unfair to the defendant. Jurors' demographic characteristics failed to differentiate dissenters from jurors who voted with the majority.

Dissenting jurors who held out, but not dissenters who conformed to the majority, thought police testimony was less believable and reported more certainty on the jury's first vote.

Conforming dissenters had difficulty deciding on a verdict. Dissenting jurors who conformed to the majority opinion in deliberations were significantly less certain of their initial votes in deliberations, and were more likely to state that there was less time to express their views.

In sum, a sizeable proportion of jurors eventually vote in line with the majority opinion on a jury even though doing so is at odds with their personal preferences. Jurors who dissented and hung the jury believed the legally correct outcome was less fair.

Source Waters, N.L. & Hans, V.P. (2008). A jury of one: Opinion formation, conformity, and dissent on juries. Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper 08-030.