Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Jury Analysis

Scott Peterson
Scott Peterson

At the end of 2004, a jury declared Scott Peterson guilty of the murders of his wife and unborn son.  The trial procedure was long and arduous, and not only were jury consultants utilized by the defense (which helped to get the venue changed to another location), but news media called on them as well.  Several mock trials for news magazine shows were run on front of people who were matched against the actual jurors to attempt to predict the outcome before it occurred.  Some observers view the involvement of psychologists in jury selection as unfair manipulation, while others insist that attorneys should give their clients every conceivable advantage.

Depending on the resources available and the perceived stakes, psychological experts may become part of a legal team.  Introduced in the 1970s as a scientific approach to jury selection, sometimes consulting is done by individual freelancers and sometimes by a team from larger firms (although probably not as ruthlessly as those portrayed in the novel and film, Runaway Jury).  It's criticized for having no basis in sound psychological principles, yet attorneys continue to employ them.  Such consultants have several functions, most specifically, that of evaluating the various people going through voir dire to become members of a jury. 

DVD cover: Runaway Jury
DVD cover: Runaway Jury

The goal is to help attorneys to assemble a group of people who will listen with an open mind to the client's story, so they prepare a "juror profile."  This is a list of the attributes of the kind of person who will view the specific case favorably.  In order words, jury analysts examine such things as racial bias, whether a person has ever experienced police brutality, whether they have experienced gender discrimination, and how conservative their values are.  The consultants examine what people wear, what their body language expresses, and those aspects of behavior that reveal "predictive traits"--characteristics most likely to affect a person's beliefs that are relevant to the case.  Research indicates that juries make decisions based more firmly on their values, beliefs, and experiences than on the case facts.  Some cases, such as those involving the death penalty, require particular care in looking out for authoritarian attitudes, a political agenda or an urge to punish.

As part of the process, they might conduct a mock jury trial in the target community, do a telephone survey, or run a focus group to try to determine the types of responses they can expect in a given area.  They ask each person who participates in these surveys a list of questions that will yield clues about what the relevant population might think of a case.  The consultants then record age, sex, race, employment history, hobbies, experiences growing up, marital status and other habits.  That provides a database from which to develop a preferred profile.

The consultant examines traits that provide information about socioeconomic background, compassion, and life attitudes.  A focus group composed of people who are likely to represent the typical juror can help them to offer advice on developing arguments, opening and closing speeches, determining the effectiveness of visual aids, developing questions for voir dire, making notes for jury instruction, and for revealing aspects of the case that might not have been obvious.

For some mental health professionals, this kind of venture is a full-time occupation requiring special training and a good grasp of statistical analysis.  Despite the controversy surrounding their work at times, they do offer a service.  Others work at the other end of the spectrum -- when a case is decided.

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