A Missouri jury is confronted with a cold case
In 1976, Becky Doisy disappeared. A man named Johnny Wright was wanted for questioning in the case. The problem was that Johnny Wright was nowhere to be found. More than thirty years later, Johnny Wright was discovered living as Errol Edwards is Georgia and then Texas.
The state’s case depended on the testimony from Wright’s former roommate, Harry Moore, as well as that of William Simmons, a man who knew Wright and Moore from a local methadone clinic. So, the jury was faced with deciding a murder case, based upon little more than the decades-old recollections of two shaky witnesses who had their own problems with the law.
A Conscientious Deliberation
Melissa Spain was the foreperson of the jury. In an interview with The Missourian, she discusses how she realized that the jury had a difficult job and needed to be very careful about how they interpreted the evidence. The first thing that Ms. Spain did was review the 12 pages of jury instructions with her jury in detail, taking as long as necessary for everyone to understand what was required of them.
The jury then turned to the evidence in the case, reviewing the testimonies of Moore and Simmons in detail. Each juror was asked to volunteer any ideas and questions. According to Ms. Spain, “It was a room full of logical, open-minded people just really taking it seriously and looking at every possible angle.”
Importantly, the jury did not take a vote on any of the verdicts until it had thoroughly reviewed all the evidence. After six hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict.
Evidence-driven vs. Verdict-driven deliberations
The story Ms. Spain tells highlights the advantages of evidence-driven deliberations. Juries sometimes focus on the questions of who did what to whom when — the evidence — reserving for later the issue of what their answers mean from a legal perspective. Other juries immediately take votes about which verdict is the right one. This tends to turn deliberations into a competition between two camps to see which can “convince” the other to change its vote.
Ultimately, of course, a jury needs to take a vote. So, deliberations will eventually become verdict-driven. Delaying a vote, however, and keeping the jury in evidence-driven mode has several advantages.
- More material and relevant evidence enters the deliberations and fewer factual errors go uncorrected.
- A larger number of jurors participate actively in the discussion.
- The tenor of deliberation is more inclusive, polite and respectful.
- Jury instructions receive greater attention and adherence.
- Jurors report greater satisfaction with both deliberations and the final verdict.
I have seen judges suggest to juries that they not rush to take a vote, which seems to me a sensible idea. As a litigator, you can request that the judge offer such advice to your next jury. If you don’t think that the judge is likely to adhere to such a request, you might consider including language in your closing argument that hints at keeping deliberations in a evidence-driven mode as long as possible: “As you review the evidence in this case, combing through the testimony and exhibits, before you know how your fellow jurors will vote, I hope that you will consider…”
If a thorough jury is a good jury for your case, try to keep them out of verdict-driven mode as long as possible.