Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2010 Action Teaching Award: Honorable Mention

SPN Action Teaching Award    The Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award entry below received Honorable Mention in 2010. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the Honorable Mention recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Honorable Mention
Title: Understanding the Dynamics of Criminal Jury Trials
Submitted by: Martin Greenberg (University of Pittsburgh)
Category: Classroom activity, field experience
For students/learners in: College, high school
Objective(s): To (1) increase students' understanding of the social dynamics of criminal jury trials; and (2) help students become more reflective, informed, and engaged citizens

Description

The American criminal justice system has been the subject of much scrutiny and criticism in recent years. Claims have been made about the inefficiency, indeed brutality, of the police, the malfunctioning of courts, and the failure of the corrections system to reduce crime. One of the most maligned elements of the criminal justice system is the jury trial, perhaps due to TV shows, movies, and news accounts that focus on flawed or controversial jury verdicts.

In my course on the Social Psychology of the Criminal Justice System, I have developed a two-part action teaching exercise to help students understand the dynamics of jury decision making. First, students participate in a mock jury trial, and second, they visit a courthouse to observe a real trial. This exercise allows students to experience jury decision making from two complementary perspectives -- as actors on the inside of a trial and as observers on the outside -- thereby providing a richer learning experience than more traditional classroom approaches.

Part 1: The Mock Jury Experience

In order to simulate a real juror experience, students are emailed a summons that reads:

JUROR SUMMONS

YOU HAVE BEEN SUMMONED FOR JURY DUTY ON THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2010. YOU SHOULD ARRIVE PROMPTLY AT 11 AM AT ROOM 4125 SENNOTT SQUARE. BRING A COPY OF THIS SUMMONS WITH YOU. DEPOSIT IT IN THE JURY BOX AND TAKE A SEAT. PLEASE NOTE THAT THE COURT IMPOSES STRICT RULES OF CONDUCT. CHEWING OF GUM OR TOBACCO IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. IN ADDITION, SMOKING OR CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN IN JUDGE GREENBERG'S COURTROOM. PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF THE DRESS CODE: SHORTS OR SANDALS ARE NOT PERMITTED. ANYONE VIOLATING THESE RULES WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE.


NAME: __________________________________


SIGNATURE: _____________________________

Shortly after their arrival, students are greeted by the Honorable Judge Greenberg, who is cloaked in a black (graduation) robe and instructs them on the rules of procedure (e.g., no note taking or discussion among jurors until deliberation begins). Jurors then view a 45-minute videotape of a mock trial. The video was produced by Professor James Davis of the University of Illinois and has been shown to hundreds of students as part of his research on jury decision making (because this tape is now quite old, I advise other instructors to make their own videotape using more contemporary content).

Contents of the Video: The video deals with the trial of an alleged rapist. Participants observe the direct and cross examination of the plaintiff followed by a similar examination of the defendant. One additional witness also testifies: a medical doctor who reports on his examination of the plaintiff. The plaintiff is a woman in her thirties who alleges that the defendant, posing as a police officer, ordered her to get into his car and subsequently drove to a deserted parking lot, where he raped her. The defendant claims that the act of sexual intercourse was consensual. After hearing the final arguments by the attorneys (read by Judge Greenberg), jurors are given final instructions about the definition of reasonable doubt, requirements for a unanimous verdict, and so forth. They are then randomly assigned to one of two 12-person juries that deliberate in separate rooms.

The Honorable Judge Martin S. Greenberg Armed with a written transcript of the testimony, I alternate observing the deliberations of each jury. If jurors need a portion of the testimony reread, I do that. As the session nears its end, I instruct students that for the next session they should return to their jury room to resume deliberations. Most students become deeply involved in the deliberations, and some become quite emotional. I allow deliberations to continue for up to 45 minutes. Then all participants reassemble in our classroom to discuss the experience. On average, roughly half the juries given this case reach a unanimous verdict, and the others remain hung.

The ensuing discussion tends to be interesting, especially when the two juries reach different verdicts. In such instances, each side is curious to know how the other jury reached its decision. Participants are typically very reflective during these discussions, and many voice a belief that the hands-on experience helped them to better understand the notion of reasonable doubt. Many also admit that they listened to testimony with a biased ear, and some report feeling pressured to comply with the majority. In one such memorable discussion, majority members voiced their admiration for a lone juror who maintained his "cool" and resisted pressure from the majority. He subsequently disclosed that he was anything but cool. Much to the group's surprise, he described how nervous and tense he was in the role of hold-out juror.

Pitfalls in Part 1

There are several pitfalls to watch out for. First, some students may not take the exercise seriously, although in my experience such individuals represent a very small minority of participants. Another pitfall is that the exercise requires attendance at two class sessions, which on rare occasions can lead to attrition. Finally, although very uncommon, it's possible for a jury to reach a verdict on its first ballot and thus lose the chance to wrestle with opposing juror viewpoints.

Part 2: Observing An Actual Trial

It is hard for students to imagine what a live trial is like without having the experience of being there. Students typically have distorted expectations of jury trials based on television and movie portrayals. Consequently, before taking the class to the courthouse, I try to prepare them for the experience and encourage them to watch certain features of the trial, such as where the attorneys stand when questioning witnesses, how prepared the attorneys seem to be, and whether there are any significant courtroom distractions (e.g., comings and goings of people during witness testimony). I also direct students to pay attention to the demeanor of trial participants who are not on the witness stand. How does the defendant react when a prosecution witness testifies? Do members of the jury watch the defendant for reactions?

The day before the visit to the courthouse, I call the office of Calendar Control to locate courtrooms where criminal jury trials are occurring. Only a minority of judges at any given time preside over a jury trial. I usually then check with the judge's Tipstaff to find out more about the trial, such as what stage the trial is in. I try to find trials that are in their early stages. This way, students can hear the opening arguments and get a better sense of the case. We usually arrive around 9:30 am and stay until noon or whenever the court breaks for lunch.

Many students find this part of the exercise to be an eye-opening experience. Students often express amazement at the amount of distraction in the courtroom. They are also surprised by the cordiality shown between the two attorneys, much more than one would expect from adversaries. On some occasions we have been invited by the judge to discuss the trial, either in the courtroom or in the judge's chambers. However, such enlightening encounters are the exception rather than the rule.

Pitfalls in Part 2

One pitfall of Part 2 is that a courthouse visit requires roughly three hours, so some students are unable to attend due to time conflicts with other classes. Moreover, because we're at the mercy of the courts, in some cases the proceedings may be delayed, leaving the class waiting in the courtroom. Although rare, the proceedings may even be interrupted with a lengthy break that forces the class to abort its visit. These pitfalls represent the exception rather than the rule, however; all in all, the courtroom visit provides students with a great learning experience that nicely complements the mock jury part of the exercise.

Evidence of Pedagogical Effectiveness

Although I have not gathered quantitative evidence regarding the success of this action teaching exercise, I do know that when students are asked in the course evaluation to discuss aspects of the course that they found most beneficial, the items cited most frequently are the mock jury exercise and courthouse visit. In summary, this two-part exercise provides students with a more complete understanding of the jury trial than could be achieved through less engaging pedagogical techniques. The end result is a more reflective, informed, and engaged citizen.

Reference

Vidmar, N., & Hans, V. P. (2007). American juries: The verdict. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.



Return to Top

©1996-2014, S. Plous