I got called for jury duty this summer. I know it’s not most people’s favorite thing but, being a lawyer, I don’t mind having an excuse to do nothing but watch other lawyers argue and present evidence. I was genuinely excited when I was chosen for an attempted murder trial that was scheduled to last about two and a half weeks.
While the trial itself was interesting, I found deliberations to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my year so far. I live in Manhattan so the pool of potential jurors was fairly diverse. Our jury of twelve people was made up of eight women and four men. Eight of us were white and four of us had other ethnic backgrounds. We varied in age from twenty-something to sixty-something. At least three people in the group learned English as a second language. While only some of us discussed our jobs, I believe our economic levels varied significantly. Was it the most diverse group of people ever? Probably not. But I did feel the group represented a wide range of real New Yorkers.
After listening to arguments and evidence for six days, this group of strangers was tasked with determining whether a man was guilty of attempted murder.
We were told we were not allowed to discuss the case with anyone, including fellow jurors, until after all the evidence was presented. So for six days the 12 of us sat making awkward small talk, patiently waiting to be able to discuss the case.
On the first day of deliberations I was anxious to hear if the other 11 people agreed with my personal assessment. We took a vote to see where the group stood. The outcome? A 6/6 split. Half the group thought the man was guilty, the other half thought he was innocent. The split was not based on any racial, gender, economic or age lines that I could discern.
I was surprised by the initial vote and curious about how such a diverse group was going to reach consensus. During the trial I was reading Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. The book showcases how a homogenous tech industry is harming not just the tech industry but also everyone who uses technology (so basically everyone). In the book Wachter-Boettcher highlights countless examples where products and platforms could be improved if companies had allowed a more diverse group of people in the room and had made it easier for those diverse voices to be heard. I hoped this would carry through to our trial as well.
Technically Wrong cited a study which found the simple act of interacting in a diverse group improves performance, because it forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.
Jury duty put this study to the test for me and it definitely reinforced the study’s findings.
Throughout deliberations we were nothing if not respectful of each other and our various opinions. When one person suggested the defendant was “a bad guy who ran in bad circles” others were able to ask if the evidence reflected this or if that was a lingering inherent bias. When another juror questioned the veracity of a witness’ statement because he couldn’t identify the man who shot him, a different juror offered an explanation from personal experience.
I can say with certainty the diversity of the jury pool improved the outcome of our decision. This happened because we were all open to hearing different viewpoints and creating a space where everyone could be heard.
Ultimately, after two intense days of deliberations, we decided we couldn’t reach a consensus, resulting in a hung jury. At first I was frustrated by this outcome, thinking the last three weeks had been a waste, but after more introspection I decided a mistrial was the right outcome. There really was more than one clear way to see the specific evidence presented to us.