Bias. Everyone has it, and the perspective exists wherever you go. Some people prefer certain foods, others like sports cars over trucks, and others believe people in certain conditions behave a certain way. The interesting thing about bias, however, is that it’s often based on very limited information, which means the perspective can often be wrong. For example, when people watch a suspect confess to an alleged crime on camera, they often vote to convict the person in a trial. However, the tables turn when the film shows both the suspect and the investigator on the same film pressuring the suspect to make a confession. People suddenly take on a different bias, almost projecting themselves into the same seat facing that same investigator. So bias matters tremendously in making a trial really fair, especially one with a jury.
Juror bias has long been a major element in the outcomes of a trial. People of all stripes come into a case, and they carry that baggage with them into the jury deliberation room after hearing a case. The legal system has a number of tools by which to limit or reduce bias, but the results are often partial at best. Discretionary removal of some jurors during pre-trial selection gets rid of some problems, but these choices are limited in number. Those jurors that remain after the selection filtering still bring all their experience, thoughts, issues, and baggage with them.
For example, a number of jurors can often make it past initial screening and surveys onto a death trial panel. Many of them may seem very favorable for the prosecution involved when they are asked if they support ultimate punishment and respond affirmative. However, when the same prospective jurors are told that they will actually have to sign the death certificate of the convicted party, they frequently don’t want to be held responsible. This is the difference between disconnected decisions based on bias and those that have personal ramifications.
Bias will always be a problem with juries and the best that counsel can do is to identify it as much as possible early on and then try to either eliminate that element or put clear information in front of that juror that breaks the preconceptions brought into the jury panel. These attitudes and perspectives are often hidden in people and can even be hidden until the right issue triggers a reaction. As a result, how people respond to issues is often the playground of anthropologists and sociologists who study human behavior. Unfortunately, attorneys often don’t have years to find these landmines, so they have to work quickly and perceptively to bolster their cases.
Attorneys can’t expect people to objectively put aside all of their opinions, but they can work effectively at diluting these elements once uncovered. This is the extra step perceptive attorneys excel at and the rest of us should strive for. Our clients deserve it at a minimum.