A new study sheds light on this question -- at least in criminal cases and perhaps civil cases with similar facts. It sheds even more light, though, on two other, related issues: how difficult it is to apply scientific analysis where juries are concerned, and how risky it is to assume you can predict a juror's verdict from her demographic description.
Are urban juries more lenient?
"Baltimore Juries Less Likely To Convict," said the headlines on this study's release the other day. The research, done for Baltimore's Abell Foundation by researcher Shawn Flower of Choice Associates, analyzed 293 jury verdicts from juries in the City of Baltimore and in nearby suburban Anne Arundel and Howard Counties. Flower found that the Baltimore juries were significantly more likely to acquit criminal defendants than their suburban counterparts were: "On average, Baltimore City juries convict defendants of one or more charges 57% of the time compared to 72% of defendants convicted in [comparison suburban] jurisdictions – a significant difference of 15% (p<.05). Similarly, Baltimore City juries are 29% less likely to find defendants guilty of the most serious offense (p<.01) than the other jurisdictions."
Does this mean that urban juries are soft on crime? You may see the study cited that way, but as Flowers explains, it's more complicated than that.
Certainly the "typical" urban and suburban jurors are different from each other in important ways, as the study explains (I've omitted citations, of which there are many):
- Wealth. "Generally speaking, citizens in the three [suburban] jurisdictions tend to be more advantaged in all respects than those in Baltimore City – they are better educated, are wealthier and are more likely to own their homes."
- Crime's effect on social structures. "Prospective jurors in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, relative to Baltimore City, are also less likely to suffer from the structural disadvantage and social disorganization which often results in higher incidence of crime, and victimization from crime."
- Criminal offenders in the family, and the neighborhood. "[I]ndividuals eligible to serve on a jury in Baltimore City are more likely to have a family member, partner, and/or friend that have been involved with the criminal justice system."
- Distrust of police. "Further, studies of police indicate that members of minority race and ethnic groups express 'much more negative attitudes about the police and having lower trust and confidence in institutions of social control.'"
Or are urban prosecutions weaker?
But jurors aren't the only variable when you compare urban and suburban juries. The whole court system is different, and in ways that can change results. The study sets out some of them:
And can we know?
Finally, Flower recites with candor the things he couldn't test. Did suburban juries hear more eyewitness testimony? Did defendants testify more often? Were weapons involved? Were defendants unemployed, or did they have more prior convictions? And how strong was the evidence? All these variables correlate to conviction rates (Flower's source here is the wonderful article by Prof. Dan Devine and his colleagues, "Jury Decision Making: 45 Years of Empirical Research on Deliberating Groups," 7 Psychology, Public Policy & Law 622 (2001)), and none of them were contained in the computer database from which Flower drew his data.
This work raises terrific questions, then, and few answers. In that way, it's like a great deal of other jury research; the task is just very difficult. When you study real juries, you can't eliminate dozens of variables. When you use a mock trial to eliminate variables, you can't study real juries. And when a lawyer is standing in front of a single real jury box in a single real case, no research can say for sure what that tiny group of individuals will decide.
With all those flaws, though, jury research makes us better lawyers: it surprises us, it makes us wonder, it makes us think of things we wouldn't have, it makes us aware. You might have thought urban juries convicted more often. We think of crimes as more serious downtown, and defendants more "criminal," so it would make sense that suburban defendants had a better shot. If you thought that, and now you see how the opposite could be true, this study helped you.
Related posts here:
- A Helpful Way To Think About Race
- It's About Race. It's Not About Race
- Bringing Unconscious Bias Out Of The Dark
Others writing about the Baltimore study:
- Paul Mark Sandler at The Art of Advocacy, a blog I somehow failed to find before;
- Thaddeus Hoffmeister, whose Juries blog continues strong;
- And lots of non-law blogs.
(Photo of Baltimore by Michael King at http://www.flickr.com/photos/oslointhesummertime/125498077/; license details there.)