January 10, 2020 Feature

Jurors Are Only Human

Proper instructions can aid their good-faith deliberations.

Sylvia H. Walbolt and Mariko Shitama Outman

Download a printable PDF of this article.

Front page.

Above the fold.

“Judge Urges Parties to Settle.”

You always wanted to work on cases that made the front page of the papers, right? Perhaps not when the headlines are the result of a reporter’s eavesdropping on an in-chambers conference a few days into a trial.

That morning, one by one, the jurors are called into the judge’s chambers.

The judge, a hulking former professional football player, imposing even without his robes, puts it to them:

“Did you see the headline?”

Yes, they all answer.

“Did you read the article?”

Yes, they all answer.

“Didn’t you remember my instructions not to read newspaper articles about the case?”

I’m sorry, Your Honor, they all replied.

It is unlikely any of the jurors had consciously realized when they were reading the article that, in doing so, they violated the judge’s repeated instructions not to read newspaper articles about the case; they just had a natural reaction to do so when they saw the dramatic headline. After all, the newspaper was where all of us looked for information back in the day.

That is a true story and many, many trial lawyers have their own stories like it. And stories like these tell us a lot about jury instructions and how difficult it is to make them effective.

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