Jury trials have been around since the Athenian democracy (500 B.C). In ancient Athens, trials were public spectacles. 500 jurors, called dikaste, decided capital cases involving death and upto 1500 dikaste decided property cases.
In Islamic law countries, 12 members citizen’s juries are widely used today. Surprisingly China, Japan and South Korea are allowing more jury trials in order to increase the impartiality and independence of the legal systems.
Juries are More Lenient Than Magistrates
A study by researchers at the Legal Research Institute, University of Warwick, based on a racially mixed sample of defendants in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford shows that:
- Defendants who took their cases to jury trial were much more likely to be acquitted than those who elected to be tried before magistrates.
- Ethnic minority defendants expressed much greater confidence in trial at Crown Court, and in juries, than in magistrates. Magistrates were seen as biased in favour of the police. Juries, especially if they had ethnic minority members, were considered more likely to balance out any individual prejudices against black defendants.
Jurors in Britain Are Kinder on Ethnic Minority Defendants
Jurors in British trials are more likely to be lenient to defendants from minority backgrounds. Researchers from the University of Birmingham found that the British jury system does not discriminate against those from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds.
On the contrary, there is a tendency to compensate for perceived biases in the criminal justice system. The UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) commissioned the research, which also found that white and black people reacted the same when summoned for jury service.
How Juries Can Get Things Wrong
What you see on television affects you, even as a juror. The csi-effect, where TV shows distort the role of forensic evidence in solving cases affects juror behaviour greatly. The National Institute of Justice, USA research shows that jurors often have unrealistic expectations.
- 46 % expected to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case.
- 22 % expected to see DNA evidence in every criminal case.
- 36 % expected to see fingerprint evidence in every criminal case.
- 32 % expected to see ballistic or other firearms laboratory evidence in every criminal case.
The case of Rodney King is another example of the different ethnicity of jury members affecting their perception negatively.
The jury, consisting of ten whites, one Latino and one Asian acquitted three white police officers though there was compelling evidence of police brutalilty on videotape. This miscarriage of justice led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 resulting in 52 death and 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billions in damages.
Complex issues like rape are very confusing even for experts of the field and jurors need better guidance from judges and experts on how to understand victim behaviour.
Research by Professor Vanessa Munro of The University of Nottingham and Dr Louise Ellison of the University of Leeds found jurors have a poor understanding of the ways in which women may react when raped, the degrees and types of injuries they might sustain and the different behaviours they might display in the witness box.
Jurors expect all rape victims to:
- Fight back against the rapist
- Have serious physical injuries
- Report the offence immediately
- Appear tearful and distressed when recounting their experiences in court.
Media Can Affect Jurors Easily
India abolished the jury system in 1959, after the sensational trial of Naval Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati for murdering the lover of his English wife.
The jurors saw the handsome man as representing a wronged husband and found him not guilty with an 8-1 verdict but the judge referred the case to the Bombay high court. The High Court and the Supreme Court sentenced him to life imprisonment.
In Spain, where there is not much faith in the jury system, the Wanninkhof case of 1999, was a miscarriage of justice by jurors.
The jurors found Dolores Vázquez, the lesbian lover of Alicia, the mother of the murdered 19-year old girl Rocío Wanninkhof guilty because the media painted her so. The real killer was later found to be an Englishman, Tony Alexander King.
Jury Decisionmaking Models Not Very Reliable
Can you predict easily how a certain jury will sentence the accused?
The relationships among juror and defendant characteristics and their influence on trial outcomes are extremely complex and cannot be forecasted. Case strength, defendant ethnicity, and jury composition were related to sentence lengths.