The moral and emotional landscape of jury duty


Associate Professor Julia Davis, based in UniSA’s School of Law, is working with a group of researchers on the Australia Research Council-funded National Jury Sentencing Study, which is investigating public attitudes to sentences imposed by courts. In this month’s Research Spotlight column, she shares some of the findings from two recent studies, which involved surveying and interviewing 100 jurors in Tasmania and Victoria.

The prevailing idea, driven by the media and politics, that the public has a punitive attitude when it comes to criminal justice could very well be a myth. That’s one of the most surprising results from our research into the jury experience.

Ninety per cent of the juror respondents we surveyed said the judge’s sentence in their case was either ‘fairly appropriate’ or ‘very appropriate’ – a response that contrasts markedly with the results of more general public opinion surveys, which show that when people are asked to assess sentencing levels, between 70 and 80 per cent reply that criminal sentencing is too lenient.

And while you might expect jurors to commonly feel anger during their jury service experience, particularly in relation to the offender, the reality is also very different. There was very little anger among the 100 jurors we interviewed – most expressed no anger at all and their attitudes to the offenders in their cases were often dominated by sorrow, sympathy and compassion.

In fact, anger was often replaced by sentiments of hope – hope for the future of the offender, hope that the system would rescue them rather than punish them, and hope that the system would help to rehabilitate them and encourage them to re-join the community and not to reoffend.

Our research allowed us to go beyond the myths about the criminal justice system, and the preconceived ideas about what jury service is like, and reveal instead how everyday people react to their jury experience and feel about sentencing once they have seen the system first hand.

Many people dread the call for jury service because of the disruptions it can cause in both private and professional life. Others look forward to the experience because criminal law is one of the most publicly visible and interesting aspects of the legal system.

Regardless of how prospective jurors anticipate their jury service, in the end most people find their experience to be worthwhile and absorbing. Even in cases where the evidence is disturbing and the trial is time consuming and difficult, jurors tell us they appreciate the opportunity to see the criminal justice system in action.

Jury service is a solemn undertaking because it requires jurors to judge and potentially condemn another human being. Jurors are well aware that their decision could change the course of another person’s life and this power over another can become a burden during the course of the trial, especially when the time for their deliberations draws nearer and they realise that their decision could put the accused person behind bars.

It is a heavy burden that in most cases people would rather not undertake, and it is a task that they are not trained for.

Across the process of a trial, we found that jurors experience a range of positive and negative emotions. The emotions change as they go through the process of reporting for jury duty, being selected and sworn in, listening to the lawyers and witnesses, taking in the judge’s directions, deliberating on the verdict and then delivering the verdict.

Jurors are often surprised when they realise that a real trial is nothing like the version that is presented on television.

They get frustrated because they want to be certain of their verdict, but the trial (and sometimes the lawyers and witnesses) may seem to be hiding the truth from them. Some jurors can also become distressed because the evidence might be gruesome or highly disturbing – and some of the people we interviewed described being traumatised by the experience and confused by their conflicting emotions of empathy for victims and sympathy for the offenders.

The trial and the looming decision can take its toll on jurors, preoccupying them during the day and disturbing their sleep at night, and the fact that jurors are not allowed to talk about the case with their friends and partners can also make them feel cut off from their usual support mechanisms.

Jurors are not experts in the law but they are being asked to make a very important decision governed by intricate rules. The legal terminology and formalities of the trial can be confusing and between moments of tension and concentration, jurors can also become bored and frustrated. Some say the process is often time wasting and tedious, while others appreciate that while it is slow and laborious, it is also fair, rigorous and balanced.

Once jurors are in the jury room there are no accepted processes to guide their decision making, and many find the lack of structure for their deliberations maddening, especially when jurors with different decision-making styles and viewpoints clash.

Jurors are often frustrated because they are asked to make a black and white decision, but all they can see are shades of grey. Some jurors find it almost impossible to bring themselves to convict because of the serious consequences of a verdict of guilty, especially when they feel sympathy for the accused – or see their partners, children or parents supporting them in the courtroom.

They are confronted by their feelings of sympathy for the accused who may not look the way they expected a ‘real criminal’ to look. It makes the decision more difficult when the jurors recognise that the accused is a real human being who has done the wrong thing, and is not the evil criminal of their imagination.

The moment of the verdict is an intensely emotional time for many jurors, who report that they were shaking, their heartbeat increased, and they felt tearful – even though they may have been wholly convinced of the guilt of the accused. Others report a sense of unease, even guilt, or a feeling that they have somehow been tainted by being deeply involved at the heart of the criminal justice process that deals with such unpleasant matters and condemns other members of the community to punishment.

The good news is that while jury service can sometimes feel like an ordeal, it can also be a process that people find interesting and inspiring.

Despite the fact jury service is an emotional experience, jurors are well aware that they should dispassionately weigh the evidence logically and with an open mind, and not according to their passions or feelings. This realisation, and the support of other jurors, helps jurors overcome their initial reluctance to decide on another person’s fate.

They take pride in doing their job well and find it useful to remind themselves of the bigger picture and the obligation that they have to do justice according to law.

The jurors we spoke to – even those who hated some aspects of their jury service – used a number of positive words to describe their experience, including fascinating, enjoyable, rewarding, heartening, amazing, and even marvellous.

Many report coming away impressed with the whole system and looking forward to serving on a jury again. There is a sense from jurors that they are there to make the community safer and uphold community standards.

Prospective jurors are in for a very interesting and sometimes very challenging experience. The juror’s task is a serious one – it is one of the rare times in a person’s life when they must make a solemn oath and promise to carry out their duty faithfully.

They should take pride in their role of serving as representatives of the community who bring their common sense experience of life into the courtroom. After all, regardless of all the rules and regulations it contains, the law is also a very human instrument and a juror’s part is to give the law that human face.

Supporting jurors on jury duty

Taking part in jury service can be an overwhelming experience and jurors, sworn to secrecy, are unable to rely on their normal support networks such as family and friends. According to Associate Professor Julia Davis, jurors, for the most part, support each other throughout the trial, however her research has revealed that many jurors would like access to extra support from a counsellor in the weeks after the trial and verdict.

While most jurisdictions in Australia provide counselling services to jurors on request, not all jurisdictions publicise this fact widely. Most Australian jurisdictions also provide orientation material to jurors in video-form on their first day of service and supplement it with written material, such as a booklet or handbook.

Based on the results of her research, Assoc Prof Davis says there are several ways for courts, lawyers and judges to assist jurors in their task, including:

  • Treat jurors with respect and consideration

  • Provide explanations about what is taking place during the trial and clarify the concepts and matters that are likely to lead to misunderstandings and misperceptions

  • Provide better information in varying formats to jurors about jury selection, criminal trials and the deliberation process

  • Assist the deliberation process with aids such as issues tables and question trails

  • Protect jurors from concerns about privacy and intimidation

  • Encourage juries to take their time in their deliberations and treat each other with respect, bearing in mind that different people have different decision-making styles.