By Carly Schnabl, on 22 March 2011
Sarah Polcz, UCL Laws, reports on last week’s Lunch Hour Lecture, “Sex, Drugs, Race and the Internet: Jury Myths and Challenges”. UCL Laws’ Professor Cheryl Thomas confronted these misconceptions, sharing the findings of her ground-breaking research for the Ministry of Justice on juror decision-making.
Television courtroom dramas, many of them American, have fed a widespread perception that juries will often be swayed by the race of a defendant, while the reporting of conviction statistics has added to a sense that juries may be unwilling to convict for certain offences, such as rape, due to a bias against female complainants.
The demographic reality of juror selection in England & Wales will result in many black and minority ethnic defendants coming to trial in front of all white juries. Can they expect a fair trial? Professor Thomas investigated this question by having real juries at court evaluate a case simulation in which the fictional defendant differed only in race from condition to condition. The results were reassuring. Despite being disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested and charged, Black or Asian defendants were no more likely to be convicted by juries than White defendants. The conclusion that racially balanced juries are not necessary to ensure fair verdicts for minority defendants is an important vote of confidence for our current juror selection system.
Sex and Drugs
While Professor Thomas’ research has confirmed jurors are in fact much less likely to convict for certain types of crimes than others, a closer look at the offences with the highest and lowest jury conviction rates suggests juries try cases on the law and the evidence. The highest conviction rates turn out to be for offences where strong physical evidence is most likely to exist against the defendant. For instance, drug possession with intent to supply has a conviction rate of 84%. Conversely, the lowest conviction rates are for offences where the law requires juries to be sure of the state of mind of the defendant or complainant in order to convict, such as rape. Even still, in rape cases juries convict (55%) more often than they acquit.
Despite concerns that jurors belonging to the “Internet” generation might struggle to pay attention to information presented orally, Professor Thomas found that younger jurors (those under 30) had the highest comprehension of oral instructions, with comprehension declining with age. Similarly, it was primarily older jurors and not younger jurors who disregarded judicial directions and used the internet to look for information about cases, at a rate of 81% in high profile trials. Jurors must only decide a case based on the evidence presented in court and such behaviour poses a serious problem for trial by jury as it can lead to collapsed cases and mistrials. A question for future research is whether jurors can be stopped from using the internet at all.
For more information see Professor Thomas’ report Are Juries Fair?
Watch the full lunch hour lecture here: