Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In the 1957 film classic “Twelve Angry Men,” jurors deciding the fate of a murder suspect question, cajole and nearly come to blows en route to reaching a unanimous verdict. The film offers a dramatization of what should be going on in jury rooms every day: passionate deliberation and review of the trial evidence, such that jurors reach a unanimous verdict — one that leaves no reasonable doubt in the minds of reasonable citizens who will hear or read about the verdict.
In Oregon, criminal trial juries are not required to reach unanimous verdicts, except in the case of first-degree murder. In a nation of blog-scouring information-gatherers and truth-seeking individuals who value honesty and transparency, a verdict of anything less than unanimous is weak. Any actual or perceived weaknesses in our system of justice should be examined so that we prevent a miscarriage of justice.
More than 40 years ago, the American Bar Association developed a criminal justice standards guide that permitted less-than-unanimous verdicts. But, as an organization committed to improving the American jury trial system, by the mid 1970s, we re-examined this verdict issue.
After a review of available jury trial research, the ABA overhauled its precedent-setting Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Trial By Jury and concluded in 1976 that criminal jury trials should require a unanimous verdict. The ABA has remained committed to that ideal for the last 33 years, and we believe that verdict unanimity should be the goal for all states.
If we want our citizens to look upon our system of justice with pride and to serve as jurors, we must give them reason for their trust and confidence in that system.
In further examination of the jury system in 2005 the ABA reviewed additional empirical studies and determined that non-unanimous jury decisions silence alternative viewpoints, reduce the reliability or “trust factor” of jury determinations and damage overall confidence in our criminal justice system.
What happens, then, when there is one juror who — like Juror #8 in “Twelve Angry Men” — doesn’t agree with the rest of the people in the room? Research has shown that there is rarely a hung jury caused by one or two adamant jurors. Rather, deadlocks happen when there is a disagreement over the importance of a particular piece of evidence. And, when that happens, it usually leads to further discussion — which is a good thing.
Unanimous jury verdicts require deeper analysis of facts and increase the average deliberation time from 75 minutes (for non-unanimous verdicts) to 138 minutes. I know that if my future depended on a jury verdict, I would want the standards set as high as possible.
We are a nation of many voices and we all want to be heard. We should expect that these feelings would follow us, if called to serve as jurors, into the deliberation room. The ABA advocates for a criminal justice system in which each juror’s point of view is considered and all jurors are persuaded in order to produce a unanimous result.
We are also a nation of innovators. We arrive at a plateau and we look ahead to the next peak to be scaled; we invent while already anticipating the next solution or best practice. Our system of justice has evolved in much the same way, and we should not be afraid to examine something for the sake of not disturbing the status quo.
H. Thomas Wells Jr. is president of the American Bar Association.
Published in Oregon Live.