A few weeks ago the New York Times ran this article about a mistrial in a New York murder trial following a several-months-long trial and 18 days of jury deliberations.

The part of the story that grabbed me were the complaints from other jurors that the sole holdout introduced his own theories into deliberations:

[the holdout] was convinced he had acted on principle, but other jurors believed his views were so strong and so singular that they began imagining three theories of the case: the prosecution’s, the defense’s and [the holdout’s]….

Other jurors said they thought [the holdout] was distrustful of the detectives in the case, sometimes citing recent examples of police misconduct….

Sometimes, while challenging the narrative presented by the prosecution, [the holdout] suggested alternatives that other jurors said seemed far-fetched. “He would come up with theories that the defense didn’t even bring up,” said…, the jury’s forewoman. 

This is a real life example of an issue I’ve written about before where jurors introduce their own evidence and unsupported theories into deliberations. I view it as a big problem that the judicial system wants to ignore.

I don’t think that jury instructions adequately explain how juries should go about reaching their verdict. Calling our current method of instructing jurors a joke might be an overstatement. But I’m sure the system of instructing juries could be greatly improved simply by revisiting general court instructions. jury

Lawyers and judges should always be looking for ways to improve the judicial system. Instead, most would rather maintain the status quo.

It’s too bad. This is an area where it might not be hard to greatly increase the odds that juries render the right verdict for the right reasons.

  • Vicki Gilliam

    I recently tried a medical malpractice case where I knew we had reached our burden of proof and the defense had not even attempted to address it. The “elements” of negligence had been reached by our expert testimony and I had even gotten their defendant, on cross, to admit most of the issues in our favor. Much to my surprise, the defense verdict came in. The jury had developed an entirely new theory of causation, the basis of which had not even been discussed, much less supported by the required expert testimony. They found an entry in the medical records on an unrelated event and told us that “they thought” this independent event (with no testimonial support or even argument) caused this patient’s death. They had independently “solved the mystery” and were able to justify their ruling with their own theory of the case! Obviously the instructions meant nothing to them. This case was outside of Mississippi and I was brought in for trial because it was a very defense centered venue and a very educated jury pool. A tough lesson for my friend who had put six figures in the case, only to discover that the jury in a venue has earned their “label” for a reason. And, I had “hit a record” (as the aggravated judge told me) in that venue for strikes “for cause”. So, we had done our best to to seat the best jury we could with our strikes and Voir Dire. We just weren’t able to defend the theories that were developed during deliberation!

    • I’m certainly not an expert on jury instructions, but the standard Miss. instructions don’t seem to exclude what this jury did:

      “You are to decide the facts in this case based on the evidence presented at trial. You are then to apply the law to the facts to return a verdict. You should not be influenced by bias, sympathy, or prejudice. Your verdict should not be based upon speculation or guesswork. Your verdict must be based on the evidence.”

      Vicki’s jury doubtless thought they were acting “based on the evidence.” Does there need to be language about “theories,” not just “evidence”? Any case law on that?

      • PhilipThomas

        Juries probably often think they are doing it right when they aren’t. The attorneys for the parties in a medical malpractice case can’t argue for a verdict based on a theory that is not supported by expert testimony. But here, the jury did.

        And Anderson is right, standard instructions seem to allow it. Perfect example of why instructions need to be improved.

  • Saltwaterpappy

    The idea of jury nullification in criminal cases is a time-honored American tradition especially when jurors have concerns about the veracity and truthfulness of the law enforcement officers who testify in court. As one former prosecutor once told me, “I expect criminal defendants to lie in court, but what really concerns me is that I never know when law enforcement officers are going to perjure themselves in order to make charges stick, or to obtain a conviction in court.” As someone once said, “If men were angels, there would be no need for government.” On the other hand, in a secular democratic republic such as ours, government is supposed to be of, by, and for the people. Therefore, jurors have an affirmative duty as the judges of the facts to make a determination as to the credibility of all individuals who testify under oath in court–including law enforcement.

    • PhilipThomas

      I don’t view juror nullification and finding for the defendant in a criminal trial as the same thing. I thought juror nullification was when the jury found for the defendant because they believed that the offense should not be a crime. That’s different that finding that the cops weren’t persuasive.

      • Saltwaterpappy

        True, but it can also be used in the scenario I described–see the O.J. Simpson verdict.