How do legal attitudes of jurors affect verdicts in criminal cases?
Jurors do not experience a criminal trial as neutral blank slates. Jurors come to the trial with pre-existing attitudes and beliefs about many issues, including about the legal system.
Social science researchers have used the Pre-Trial Juror Attitude Questionnaire (PJAQ) to measure individuals' legal attitudes in criminal cases (Lecci & Myer, 2008). The PJAQ asks people to agree or disagree with statements that address their conviction proneness, confidence in the legal system, views of innate criminality, cynicism towards the defense, social justice and racial bias. People agreeing with many PJAQ statements have harsher attitudes toward criminal defendants. Statements on the PJAQ that people are asked to agree or disagree with include:
- Conviction Proneness
- A defendant should be found guilty if 11 out of 12 jurors vote guilty.
- Extenuating circumstances should not be considered; if a person commits a crime, then that person should be punished.
- Criminals should be caught and convicted by any means necessary.
- For serious crimes, like murder, a defendant should be found guilty as long as there is a 90% chance that the defendant committed the crime.
- System Confidence
- When it is the suspect's word against the police officer's, I believe the police.
- If a suspect runs from the police, then the person probably committed the crime.
- Too often jurors hesitate to convict someone who is guilty out of pure sympathy.
- Generally, the police make an arrest only when they are sure about who committed the crime.
- Innate Criminality
- Once a criminal, always a criminal.
- A prior record of conviction is the best indicator of a person's guilt in the present case
- If a defendant is a member of a gang, he/she is definitely guilty of the crime.
- Men are more likely to be guilty of crimes than women.
- Cynicism Toward the Defense
- In most cases where the accused presents a strong defense, it is only because of a good lawyer.
- Defense lawyers don't really care about guilt or innocence; they are just in business to make money.
- Defense lawyers are too willing to defend individuals they know are guilty.
- Social Justice
- Rich individuals are almost never convicted of their crimes.
- Famous people are often considered to be above the law.
- A Black man on trial with a predominantly White jury will always be found guilty.
- Racial Bias
- Minorities use the race issue only when they are guilty.
- The large number of African Americans currently in prison is an example of the innate criminality of that subgroup.
- Minority suspects are likely to be guilty, more often than not.
The PJAQ is able to predict jurors' verdicts in criminal cases. For example:
- Lecci and Myers (2009) had 183 mock jurors watch an armed robbery trial. The PJAQ predicted 21% of individuals' pre-deliberation verdicts and 15.1% of jury deliberation verdicts. Juror agreement with statements related to conviction proneness and system confidence were particularly predictive of verdicts of guilt.
- Schmersal (2009) presented a burglary case to 463 mock jurors. As mock jurors increasingly agreed with statements on the PJAQ, they (a) recalled fewer case facts overall, (b) recalled a higher proportion of pro-prosecution facts in what was recalled, and (c) perceived the case against the defendant as strong. Mock jurors who perceived the case against the defendant as strong were more likely to render a verdict of guilty than were participants who perceived the case against the defendant to be weak.
- Allison and colleagues (2013) presented a rape case to 360 mock jurors. Mock jurors agreeing with more PJAQ statements thought an alibi was less believable, the witness corroborating the alibi was less believable, and the defendant was more likely to be guilty; these mock jurors also were more certain of their verdicts.
- Estrada-Reynolds and colleagues (2015) had 96 death-qualified mock jurors listen to the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Mock jurors were asked to give sentencing recommendations at eight different time pionts. Jurors voted more often for the death penalty as support for statements on the PJAQ increased.
- Curly and colleagues (2021) had 128 mock jurors listen to two homicide cases. Mock jurors rated their belief of guilt of the accused and gave a verdict in both trials. Pre-trial attitudes about the legal system significantly predicted both verdict choice and belief in guilt. The likelihood that a juror would render a guilty verdict increased with each additional statement on the PJAQ with which a mock juror agreed.
Jurors' attitudes about the legal system affect their verdicts in criminal cases. The more statements on the PJAQ that jurors endorse, the more harshly they judge a defendant.
Source Allison, M., Jung, S., Sweeney, L. & Culhane, S.E. (2014). The impact of illegal alibi activities, corroborator involvement and corroborator certainty on mock juror perceptions. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 21(2), pp. 191-204.
Source Curly, L.J., Murray, J., Maclean, R., Munro, J., Lages, M., Frumkin, L.A., Laybourn, P. & Brown D. (2021). Verdict spotting: Investigating the effects of juror bias, evidence anchors, and verdict system in jurors. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 38(8), pp. AHEAD-OF-PRINT 1-22 (published online May 4, 2021).
Source Estrada-Reynolds, V., Gray, J. & Nunez, N.
(2015). Information integration theory, juror bias, and sentence recommendations captured over time in a capital trial. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(5), pp. 713-722.
Source Lecci, L. & Myers, B. (2008). Individual differences in attitudes relevant to juror decision making: Development and validation of the Pretrial Juror Attitude Questionnaire (PJAQ). Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(8), pp. 2010-2038.
Source Schmersal, L.A.. (2009). Pre-existing attitudes about the legal system: The thirteenth juror? Masters Thesis: University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Psychology. Open Access Theses & Dissertations. 354.