Source of article The Jury Box.

One holdout’s harrowing tale

JoAnn Chiakulas was a juror on the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, charged with many counts of corruption, stemming, in part, from his alleged attempt to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat for cash and political considerations. In the end, the jury hung with respect to 24 of 25 counts, finding him guilty only of lying to federal agents.

Despite an apparent agreement among the jurors to simply return home after the trial, eschewing interviews with the press, Ms. Chiakulas found herself “outed” as the holdout juror almost immediately. Forewarned that her house had been surrounded by press, she sought refuge at her daughters house and tried to ignore the incessant ringing of her cell phone. In an interview with Ira Glass on PRI’s This American Life, she discusses at length the reasoning behind her position on Blagojevich’s guilt, as well as the environment of hostility to which she was subjected by the other jurors. The interview is fascinating and well worth a listen.

Interpretation, Intensity and Isolation

According to Ms. Chiakulas, she was not the only juror to have doubts about whether the state had made its case against Blagojevich. Since no money or favors ever changed hands, all of the evidence against the Governor was circumstantial and open to interpretation. Among the open questions,

What exactly was he asking for?

Was this kind of posturing and horse-trading common among politicians?

Given how emotional and irrational the Governor seemed to be, was he just “talking trash?” 

Again, according to Ms. Chiakulas, the vast majority of the jury had decided by the end of the trial that Blagojevich was guilty of pretty much everything he had been charged with, making deliberations a mere formality. In addition, the jurors discussed openly the pressure they felt from the public to punish Blagojevich for his transgressions. It was, then, through this “fait accompli” lens that most of the jurors viewed Ms. Chiakulas’ reluctance to convict.

While the jurors were apparently cordial enough at the beginning, things turned sour when it became clear that Ms. Chiakulas wasn’t going to “come around.” Pretty soon, she felt as if she were under siege. Pleasant conversation turned to insults and accusations. Her rationality and emotional soundness were questioned, as were her motives. Some of the jurors sent a note to the judge, asking that she be removed from the jury, on the grounds that she wasn’t deliberating in “good faith.”

When chiding, challenging and pleading failed to change her mind, certain jurors turned to intimidation in order to change her vote. Ms. Chiakulas tells one rather haunting story of a juror who had been sitting at another part of the table for several days. Finally fed up with Ms. Chiakulas’ recalcitrance, this juror moved to directly opposite her and spent hours intently glaring directly at her.

Most holdouts buckle

Regardless of whether you agree with the way in which Ms. Chiakulas interpreted the evidence in this case, you have to applaud her resolve under such withering scrutiny. She was the target of intense hostility and bullying, without any way to escape, and she stuck to her guns. Most of us would not hold up so well.

Don’t flatter yourself in thinking that you would hold out under such attacks. The data say otherwise. As I reported in a Jury Box Blog posting last year, Nicole Waters and Valerie Hans, as part of the National Center for State Courts project on hung juries, gave out post-trial surveys to almost 4000 jurors across 4 states and got back completed forms from almost 3500. This covered 367 trials. Among the questions they asked was: “If it were entirely up to you as a one-person jury, what would your verdict have been in this case?” It is important to appreciate that all of these verdicts were unanimous, in that all the jurors officially voted for it. Therefore, each “conforming dissenter” (Authors’ term) is someone who voted for a verdict she thought was wrong.

The numbers were staggering. Clearly Ms. Chiakulas is pretty unique in refusing to cave in to majority pressure. Here is how I summarized the study’s findings in that earlier post:

Remember that estimates of hung jury rates range around 7%. These are the cases with a dissenter who refused to conform. In the Waters and Hans study, 38% of juries contained at least one juror who disagreed with the general outcome of the case but voted for it anyway (conviction or acquittal). This is the most conservative measure of dissent. Juries are often faced with multiple charges against the defendant or a choice among lesser-included-offenses. So, it is possible that a defendant can be convicted, but not of the charge that a juror thought was most appropriate. Taking this into account, 54% of juries contained at least one juror who disagreed with the jury’s verdict on at least one charge. That is, more than half of the juries contained at least one juror who voted insincerely. Nearly half of the juries (46%) contained at least one juror who disagreed with the verdict for the most serious charge facing the defendant.

So, when deliberations in criminal cases fail to generate unanimous consensus, the last holdout is more than five times more likely to give up and vote with the majority than to hang the jury. Given the sort of behavior Ms. Chiakulas describes, can we really be surprised by this statistic?

The Solution? Unanimity has to go.

It is important to realize that the majority jurors in the Blagojevich case weren’t “wrong.” Neither was Ms. Chiakulas. With so much discretion in the hands of a jury, from interpreting the credibility of witnesses, to balancing the relative importance of competing evidence, to resolving “mens rea” issues, reasonable people can — and do — disagree. Even when twelve disparate people do succeed in agreeing about who did what to whom when, there is always the thorny issue of “reasonable doubt”, a term without a definition. Each juror is free to impose her own threshold. We know from experimental research that there is huge variation in how certain people need to be in a defendant’s guilt to vote for conviction.

So, the problem is not that the jurors in the Blagojevich trial could not all agree. The problem is that the criminal justice system forces them all to vote the same way to deliver a verdict. The usual rationale for this requirement is that it instills confidence in the correctness of the verdict. But, as the Waters and Hans study clearly shows,

The “unanimity” of criminal verdicts is an illusion!

Legal scholars are trumpeting something that does not exist. Criminal verdicts are just as likely to be the result of bullying, intimidation, compromise, fear and just plain exhaustion as real unanimous consensus. In difficult cases, where reasonable people can disagree about the correct verdict, real unanimous consensus seems almost completely absent, with verdicts always dependent on some jurors voting against their true beliefs.

Here is what we do know about a system that requires a unanimous verdict.

  1. There is a huge premium placed on jury selection, to avoid the possibility that “ouliers” will end up on the jury. This is critical because such outliers are most likely to reach different conclusions than their peers, endangering unanimous consensus. This is really the only argument propping up the morally, ethically and legally bankrupt practice of peremptory challenges.
  2. The extensive use of peremptory challenges, along with judicial sensitivity to jurors who might be “biased,” results in juries that fail miserably in any effort to reflect a fair cross-section of the community from which they are drawn. Essentially, anyone with strong views on topics relevant to the case at hand will be dismissed. This has a detrimental impact on the completeness and inclusivity of jury deliberations.
  3. Jurors who reach conclusions that differ from the majority of other jurors come to be seen as obstructionist. Their views are resented because they interfere with the delivery of a verdict. Many jurors who find themselves in the minority choose to remain silent for fear of the reactions their opinions might engender.
  4. Jurors in the majority are placed in the unenviable position of being asked to convert any dissenters by whatever means possible. The judiciary has declared that it does want to know how the jury verdict sausage is made. As such, juries are simply told to do whatever it takes to return a unanimous verdict. Even jurors who don’t really want to resort to bullying and cajoling may feel forced to do so in order to satisfy the Court.
  5. Lots and lots of jurors in criminal case in the United States are lying to us. When asked by a judge, “So say you all?,” the foreman replies, “So say we all.” And it’s all a big lie that everyone knows about but no one is willing to expose. Why should we endorse a system that forces jurors to take an oath to vote sincerely and then imposes a voting requirement that begs them to violate that very oath?
  6. England abandoned unanimity for jury trials in 1968. Did you hear about the riots? That’s because there weren’t any. Oregon and Louisiana have used non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases for centuries. No riots there either. In Australia, the states that still have unanimity are under pressure from the public to move away from unanimity.

The solution is to move away from unanimity to a more reasonable voting system for criminal trials. For instance, we could require 8 guilty votes for a conviction. Absent that number, the defendant is acquitted. This would, of course, also eliminate the wasteful spending associated with retrials following hung juries. I do believe that that concern that a majority will simply vote for a conviction and refuse to listen to dissent is a real one. There are two possible solutions to this concern. First, one could impose a minimum deliberation time (which would presumably increase with the seriousness of the offense). Alternatively, one could impose a unanimity requirement for the decision to stop deliberating. So, if the jurors are not unanimous as to the correct verdict, but they are unanimous in thinking that further discussion will not be productive, they can vote to end deliberations and render a verdict.