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Trial by Jury
Social and Pyschological Implications
June 06, 2004
Trinidad and Tobago utilizes trial by peers, a system that was adopted from its former colonial rulers. Where an offense has been committed, the trial is by a jury of peers, who are citizens of T&T. Thus the jury as an institution plays an important role in the functioning of the judicial system, and in fostering law, order and a sense of fairness both within the legal community and the wider society. In fulfilling their role, jurors are required to listen to two adversarial competing parties, the defense and the prosecution, deliberate and then arrive at a verdict based upon the evidence that is presented in the courtroom. This process is very complex and there are a number of very subtle influences, both internal and external, which often affect the jury's verdict. There are social and psychological implications of this process because, far from being clean slates as they enter the courtroom and being objective and consistent, jurors are in part products of their environment and are affected by factors such as preconceived notions, stereotypes, pre-trial publicity, race, class, gender, in/out group attitudes and the attractiveness of the accused and/or victim.
Even before a criminal case reaches the courtroom, the way information about the case is presented by the media influences verdicts. In a society where criminal stories are sensationalized, media reports of crime clearly influence perceptions of the accused, casting them in a negative light even before any evidence is presented. The media images of handcuffed suspects being escorted by law officers create a negative impression that can be termed a primary effect. Also because of the wide public opinion on the 'guilt' of an untried suspect, jurors can hardly escape being affected, especially if opinions are expressed by a respected person or media house. Thus, the assertion of 'innocent until proven guilty' can ring hollow.
The socio-political relationships that impact jurors' daily lives also influence their perceptions and attitudes (Allport, 1954). These attitudes form part of the self-concept, an attitudinal structure, and is the basis on which information is processed. (Mower-White, 1982; Allport, 1968). Research has shown as well that race is a factor which influences verdicts. The race of the accused and the victim, the racial composition of the jury, and the combination of these factors, compounded by the level of evidential ambiguity, can influence jurors' decision making (Chadee, 2002). . In a multi-racial country with a colonial past, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed if the scales of justice are to be balanced.
The historical, political, economic, religious and social development of this Caribbean country has had important implications for judicial and legal processes. Reinforced by a deep colonial legacy, Trinidad and Tobago has, at the core of its activities, relationships and societal structure, deep-rooted divisions along the lines of sex, class and race. Thus for instance, the remnants of colonialism have not only perpetuated the notion of Black inferiority, but also the archetypical colonial institution has attacked the psyche of the colonized. Frantz Fanon captured this elegantly:
"It is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex it is the outcome of a double process, primarily economic, subsequently, the internalization.. of the inferiority ….. The problem of colonialism includes not only the interrelations of objective historical conditions, but also human attitudes towards these conditions."
Africans, especially lower class dark-skinned Africans, and to a lesser extent rural class Indians, have suffered from the stereotypes and biases of the wider society that impinge upon the ability of jurors to arrive at fair decisions. This race syndrome goes beyond the in-group/out-group hostility documented by psychologists because the inferiority and criminally-prone stereotypes may be internalized and perpetuated by the targeted group as Fanon points out. Defendants who are dark-skinned, 'clumsy speakers', of a 'low' socio-economic class, or have little or no academic qualifications, are far more likely to encounter the biases of juries. This is also true of witnesses who are of the same description. This is especially the case when there are high levels of evidential ambiguity.
Furthermore, the effects of a verbal and non-verbal cues on jury perceptions of credibility and guilt have to be taken into consideration in analyzing the social psychological implications of trial by peers. Conley has conducted experiments that examine the role of verbal behavior in jurors' assessments of credibility in the courtroom, finding that witnesses who use "powerless" speech such as "Yes, I guess I do" were rated by mock jurors as less believable, less competent and less intelligent than witnesses using "powerful" speech. Also, a defendant who is portrayed as either very anxious or not anxious was found guilty less of the time than when he was portrayed as only moderately anxious. This was emphasized in an experiment conducted by Pryor and Leone that looked at non-verbal behavior in the courtroom. Also it has been found that females are more likely to be influenced by non-verbal behavior than males.
Research has also shown that attractive people are viewed with more credibility and are given more leniency that others who may not be perceived as attractive. However, the attractiveness of a person may also have a negative effect on the jury's perception if the attractiveness is seen as having been used to perpetrate the crime. Similarly, there is a limited amount of evidence that defendants whose victims are attractive may receive harsher treatment than those whose victims are unattractive.
Jurors' minds are not like blank slates. Jurors are information-seekers who carry with them stereotypes, attitudes and social categories. They are likely to refer to these when they are experiencing an ambiguity of evidence in trying to arrive at a verdict (Chadee, 2002) When the evidence is ambiguous or incomplete or when the circumstances of the case are very emotionally charged, juries are more likely to be influenced by extra-legal factors. People have an inherent need to make sense of their environment. An individual's stereotypes and biases function as frames of reference and assist in the reduction of ambiguity (Deosaran, 1993). Ambiguity creates a pressure which reaches back to affect attitudes and cognition (Jones, Davis and Gergen, 1961). Stereotypes and biases, especially when aroused by ambiguity can militate against jurors making proper assessments and decisions.
Research has revealed the tendency of group conformity to arise within the context of the decision-making process of juries. Penrod used the social comparison theory to explain that 'a person has difficulties in interpreting his or her reactions without some feedback from others.' Chadee postulated that,
"In a court case with high evidential ambiguity, jurors may be unsure of the verdict since there is no objective criteria which they can use to make their decision. A juror may compare his opinion on the case with other jurors to assist in the reduction of ambiguity. He may then affiliate himself with others jurors who hold the same standing. However, a juror may also use another criteria such as racial affiliation in order to acquire social support within the jury leading to factions developing within the jury."In other words, group polarization may result when members of the jury realize that others hold similar views. Also the guilt feeling that may arise as a result of individual opinions will be reduced by the diffusion that will take place within the jurors. For example in a case with apparently equal evidence, if a guilty verdict is decided, jurors will identify it as a group decision in order to reduce their internal complicity in possibly sending someone to hang.
The composition of the jury in terms of race, class, gender and religion can affect the outcome of a trial. For instance, in a study conduct by Chadee (2002), it was found that, in a murder trial with an African accused, jurors in an Indian dominated jury are more likely to give a guilty verdict (murder or manslaughter) when faced by a high level of evidential ambiguity than jurors in an African dominated jury.
It can be clearly seen that jurors, far from being objective, consistent machines, are deeply affected by internal and external influences such as stereotypes, race, class, gender, attractiveness, demeanor, social categorization, pretrial publicity and the desire to conform. The composition of the jury can also act as an extra-legal influence. These often subtle influences are more likely to affect the outcome of a trial if both the defense and prosecution's case are nearly equal in strength, if there is a high level of evidential ambiguity and if the circumstances of the case provoke a lot of emotions. However, in spite of the problems inherent in the process, and in the absence of a better process, trial by peers remains an integral part of the judicial and legal system in Trinidad and Tobago. Regardless of the actual guilt of the accused party, each person deserves the right to a fair trial, or at least one that can be as fair as possible. Stereotypes and bias are natural in the sense that people's perceptions will always be influenced by their past experiences, their socialization, and their mental constructs. However, methods can be instituted to reduce the level of bias. The biases of jurors are a reflection of the issues that need to be addressed in the wider society. These issues can be partly addressed in the context of the jury system by informing potential jurors about the way the biases of race, sex, class, appearances etc., operate, so that they can identify them. However this will only partly help because the depth of social conditioning is very deep and these biases are often too subtle for the individual to identify. The evidence greatly emphasizes the need for more research into the social psychological implications of trial by peers in a small country such as T&T, and also the need for wider discussions on gender, sex, class, and the impact of colonialism in shaping Trinidadian society.
Chadee, D. (2002) Trial by Peers; Social and Psychological Assessment of the Jury. UWI.
Fanon, F. (1957). Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press, Evergreen Books.
Deosaran R (1985). Trial by Jury: Social and Psychological Dynamics. St Augustine, Trinidad: Institute of Social and Economic Research, UWI.