Juries are made up of a variety of people from various backgrounds with differing beliefs. This in turn allows for a range of opinions to be expressed, which generally reflect community values and standards on the issues in any given case. An influential factor of jury decision-making examined closely in forensic psychology is expertise. Expertise, which typically takes the form of an expert witness or testimony in this context, has the benefit of either helping a jury better understand the information presented in a case with complicated issues, or countering misinformation held by a given juror. However, the field of forensic psychology is concerned about the fine line between merely correcting misinformation about case evidence and completely biasing a juror’s perception of the evidence towards a particular stance. This essay will discuss the benefits and limitations of expertise in forensic psychology, specifically focusing on how these factors affect jury decision-making. Based on this information, this essay will then suggest solutions to improve expertise input in this area of forensic psychology. Overall, both judges and jurors need to be educated on evaluating the quality of expert evidence, and the court must be more cautious in ensuring that the jury is diverse in both background and opinions.
Benefits of Expertise
In any given court case, jurors are expected to only consider the facts and evidence presented in the case without any prior research that may interfere with the relevant issues in the case. However, at the same time, jurors are expected to utilize their own personal experience when reaching a decision. According to Winter and Greene (2007), jurors rely on a ‘story model’, where the juror will create a narrative based on the presented evidence and makes a decision based on which narrative fits the verdict options best. As the construction of this narrative is based on prior experiences and beliefs, this will affect the juror’s interpretation of the evidence and therefore, their decision. Knowing this, jurors benefit greatly from expert testimonies that can correct previously held misconceptions about present issues that may affect a juror’s verdict. One such type of case where the perception of evidence is prone to misinformation is sexual abuse cases, as the circulation and influence of rape myths are vast. Goodman-Delahunty, Cossins, and O’Brien (2011) found in a mock child sexual abuse case that jurors were more likely to convict the defendant and view the complainant’s evidence as more credible if jurors were presented with an expert testimony describing the behavior and memory of sexually abused children and why this was the case. Similarly, in Ryan and Westera’s study (2018), a combination of presenting a cognitive statement from the complainant and an expert testimony both explaining the reasoning behind the complainant’s behavior towards the defendant’s advances during a mock rape trial increased the jury’s collective perception of the defendant’s blameworthiness. This was also shown to be more effective than showing just the cognitive statement or the expert testimony only, as presenting both reduced ambiguity of information and potential reliance on rape myths. Additionally, this benefit of education and misinformation correction from expertise can also be found within the jury itself. It is not uncommon to have ‘juror-experts’ on the jury, who are defined as jurors with occupational knowledge relevant to the issues at hand. According to Diamond, Rose, and Murphy’s study (2014), juries benefitted from juror experts having the ability to clarify certain points of evidence shared by an expert that was not fully understood by the rest of the jury. Furthermore, although juror experts were noted to actively contribute more than jurors without relevant expertise to the case, they were not more likely to take leadership during deliberations, hold one-sided views or question opposing juror views more so than their fellow jurors. In summary, juries benefit greatly from expertise, as expert witnesses or juror experts are able to explain difficult concepts in particular law cases and correct misinformation.
Limitations of Expertise
However, there are many limitations to expertise in jury decision-making. The primary limitation of expertise is that it can negatively impact the way in which a juror interprets the issues presented in the case. For example, in US capital punishment cases, jurors must be ‘death-qualified’, meaning that must be able to vote for a death sentence if the evidence is in favor of it. However, although they would be considered ‘experts’ in these kinds of cases, death-qualified jurors have been noted to hold biases in their decision-making. Bowers, Sandy, and Steiners (1998) showed that both pro-death and pro-life jurors already held personal judgments corresponding to their stance on capital punishment prior to the commencement of the trial. Furthermore, in the same study, many death-qualified jurors expressed a predisposition that the only acceptable punishment for particular crimes was the death penalty. This ties in not only with the concept of the story model where a given juror’s verdict is affected by their experiences and beliefs but is also related to an expert’s limitation of inflexibility, where experts are unable to adapt to tasks that are inconsistent with their prior knowledge (Lewandowsky, Little & Kalish, 2007). In this particular case, to take a pro-life stance in sentencing would be inconsistent with a death-qualified juror’s prior knowledge base, as they are predisposed to be able to follow through with a death sentence. The creation of a jury that is completely pro-death also presents issues regarding how well the formed jury reflects the demographic of the community and its values. A study by Lynch and Haney (2018) found that jurors who were death-qualified were more likely to be Caucasian than African American, and more likely to be male than female. An additional limitation of expertise in jury decision-making is that jurors seem to lack the ability to assess the credibility and validity of expert testimonies. It was found in Martire and Kemp’s study (2009) that although separate groups of jurors were given different information by expert witnesses on confidence as a predictor of eyewitness accuracy, the overall performance of both groups in judging if the eyewitness was correct or not did seem to be influenced by the congruency of the expertise given. These points highlight that a juror’s evaluation of case evidence can be highly subjective and prone to personal biases, even when there is an expert present to counter misinformation.
Suggestions for Improving Jury Decision Making
Based on the benefits and limitations of expertise in jury decision-making aforementioned, this essay will now suggest several solutions in which the limitations of expertise can be lessened whilst still maintaining its benefits. One of the main limitations mentioned earlier was that jurors do not have the full capacity to critically evaluate expert testimony. While it is the expert’s task to educate the jury, it is up to the jury to process the presented facts as objectively as possible, both from the case and the expert, in order to reach a just decision. A potential suggestion to combat this limitation would be to further educate jurors about critical thinking and the evaluation of evidence. Perhaps enrolling jurors in a short, online course a few days before a trial about how to evaluate evidence and expert testimonies, or giving jurors access to an information pack about their roles and responsibilities, would better ensure that jurors are more prepared in assessing the facts of the case and from that make a scientifically informed, thought through decision. Moreover, the judge also plays a significant role in helping the jury understand the scientific quality of their evidence, so education must also be conducted for judges to improve their ability to assess the quality of expert testimonies, as well as ask questions to the expert witness that will aid jurors in evaluating the credibility of their evidence (Chorn & Kovera, 2019). Another limitation mentioned earlier was that a juror’s verdict on a case may already be decided prior to entering the trial, especially in the instance of capital punishment cases as aforementioned. Sandys and Trahan (2008) suggested that prospective jurors entering a capital punishment case must undertake a pretrial questionnaire about their opinions towards death sentencing so that in court the filtration process for picking a jury will be more efficient in creating a jury where a variety of opinions about capital punishment can be heard, and verdicts are not skewered in favor of a death sentence regardless of the evidence presented. Furthermore, during this filtration process, the court must also be vigilant in considering the demographics of prospective death-qualified jurors and ensure that the resulting jury is diverse in both beliefs and backgrounds.
Although there are informative benefits to the inclusion of expert input in jury decision-making, these benefits can be marred by its limitations arising from the subjectivity of expertise perception and evaluation. This essay has offered several solutions that aim to preserve the benefits of expert testimony whilst reducing the impact of its limitations. In summary, expert testimonies have a very important role to play in a juror’s evaluation of evidence, however, legal systems must be mindful that jurors may be unaware of how to asses evidence credibility and must be proactive in emphasizing objectivity and critical evaluation of evidence so that jurors are more capable of making educated and unbiased verdicts. Additionally, care must be taken by the court to safeguard against one-sided juries that are unrepresentative of the community.