A trial close to home, and a jury weighing evidence

A trial has just ended near my home–the trial of former football coach and charity founder Jerry Sandusky. It has been a crazy first year at Penn State for me because of the events surrounding Sandusky, and I have considered blogging on this trial for weeks. Now that the jury has returned a resounding guilty verdict, I will offer a few observations.

  • Trials usually don’t last as long as people think they will. This was a case that was months in the making, but it was over in two weeks. As former federal justice William Dwyer argued in his book In the Hands of the People, slow trials are an artifact of judges giving too much leeway to ponderous attorneys and procedural games.
  • A good jury takes its time to sift through the evidence. Years ago, jury researchers discovered that some juries were evidence-driven, while others were verdict-driven. In the latter case, juries focus on reaching the verdict, rather than walking through the evidence first. Based on what little is known at this point, the Sandusky jury appeared to consider the evidence carefully. They took a full 20 hours to deliberate, and they reviewed specific testimony, presumably to discuss points of uncertainty or disagreement.
  • Returning to the main theme of this blog (i.e., the impact of jury service on the jurors themselves), it’s likely that this is an experience the Sandusky jurors will never forget. As we show in The Jury and Democracy, though, most jurors can remember vivid details from their trials long after they have concluded. The Sandusky trial may be a mega-boost of vitamin C (for civic?), however, because the jury had to consider so many charges. Our research found that the more charges in a criminal case, the larger the impact of deliberation on one’s future participation in public life (e.g., voting). The effect appeared to come from the sheer deliberative load–the number of separate judgments you had to make, each time holding a person’s fate–often even their freedom–in your hands.
  • This case was one more example of how important it is to remember that what the jury sees is not what we, the public, get to see. In this case, the jury was sequestered and did not learn that one of Sandusky’s own foster children approached prosecutors to identify himself as yet another victim of abuse. Had the jury returned more not guilty verdicts, it would have been important to keep that in mind.
  • Finally, speaking from personal experience as a juror, it’s often the case that a juror will recognize that a defendant is clearly guilty yet feel constrained about reaching a guilty verdict because of the nature of the evidence and the letter of the law. That is, jurors can share the public’s lay judgment about likely guilt but recognize their role of jurors asks more of them, whether guilt has been “proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the lead up to the Sandusky trial, it wasn’t crystal clear that the prosecution’s case was sufficient. After all, prosecutors had waited a long time to bring charges and moved only once they got testimony from another coach, whose account was questioned vigorously by the defense. In the end, the case was strong, and it is gratifying to see jury and public judgment in synch, but there are good reasons they are sometimes at odds.



About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Conducting trials, Deliberation on juries, Social/political impact of juries, Verdicts juries reach. Bookmark the permalink.

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