When asked by a foreigner about the American justice system, many Americans may be at a loss to explain the intricacies of our courts, but inevitably they will find their way to enthusiastically describing juries. There’s something uplifting, almost noble, about juries. Perhaps that impression has been heightened by the countless 12-member juries we’ve seen on TV shows: concerned, well-groomed citizens sitting attentively in two rows, listening to witnesses and attorneys lay down the facts of the case. If all goes as it should, we realize, jury duty is civic engagement at its best.
How Jurors Process Information When Awarding Damages in a Civil Case
Jury duty is also fraught with complicated, sometimes challenging, decision-making, says Valerie P. Hans, Charles F. Rechlin Professor of Law. How and why juries reach conclusions is one of her main areas of research. Hans is collaborating with fellow Cornell professor Valerie F. Reyna, Human Development, to study how juries arrive at damage awards in civil cases. Reyna, who is a psychologist and neuroscientist, has codeveloped with Charles J. Brainerd, Human Development, a model of decision-making known as fuzzy trace theory. The theory says individuals process information at two levels when arriving at decisions. One is the verbatim, or surface level of the information, and the other is the gist, or underlying meaning.
Jurors engage in both types of thinking as they hear a case, Hans says, but which is more powerful when it comes to awarding damages? In their preliminary project, she and Reyna used a mock juror experiment to examine that question.
“If I ask you to come up with a damage award but first I talk about numbers, even meaningless numbers, the numbers will influence you when setting the award amount,” Hans says. “This anchoring process occurs even with meaningless information, but it should be more powerful if the information is meaningful in the context of the lawsuit.” Hans and Reyna theorized that the presentation of meaningful numbers should facilitate gist thinking, and thus it should have greater impact on damage awards.
To test this, the researchers varied the meaningfulness and context for the numbers they presented to mock jurors. In one mock trial, they had the foreman of the jury make an offhand statement about the cost of courtroom renovations totaling $250,000—something that had no relevance to the court case at hand. Costs were described as high (or low) relative to average renovation costs. In another mock trial, the jury was told that $250,000 was high (or low) relative to average (or median) income. The size of a $250,000 award is easier to understand when it is compared to a meaningful yardstick such as a year’s income, Hans explains. The gist of the amount—whether it is perceived as high or low—drives award decisions.
“In both cases the number $250,000 was in jurors’ minds,” Hans says. “And we showed that it influenced the jury’s decision. But the meaningful number that spoke more directly to the plaintiff’s injury—the gist of the case—was much more influential.”
These findings suggest two important points, Hans says. “First it shows that you have to be very careful about the numbers you let people talk about in the courtroom. You can’t have offhand numbers thrown around because there’s likely an anchoring effect. And second, if you’re a lawyer and you’re trying to make an argument with a numerical component, you should do everything you can to build meaning and significance into your presentation of that number.”
Hans and Reyna have continued their research into juries and fuzzy trace theory. They received a National Science Foundation grant for $390,000 to fund a three-year research project. “I’m very excited about this research,” Hans says. “It has the potential to suggest ways we might reform jury decision-making so that the awards are more consistent with the underlying sense of the severity of a plaintiff’s injury.”
Death Sentences, Judge or Jury?
Another area of research that Hans is well known for is empirical legal studies. In particular, she has contributed to a series of studies looking at the death penalty in Delaware from 1977 to 2007, as part of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. Hans carried out the studies with fellow Cornell law professors Theodore Eisenberg, Sheri L. Johnson, and John H. Blume, and with Martin T. Wells, Industrial and Labor Relations/Statistical Science. Amelia Hritz and Caisa Royer, two students in Cornell’s joint JD/PhD in the Developmental Psychology Program, also collaborated on the research.
Hans had lived in Delaware for 25 years and was familiar with the situation in that state, especially the sudden switch in 1991 from juries making the final decision of a death sentence to judges making that decision. “Our most recent paper looked at what effect the replacement of a jury with a judge had on sentencing,” Hans says. “We found it had a huge effect. Many more death sentences were handed down by judges.”
Among other things, Hans and her fellow researchers also found there were markedly higher death-sentencing rates when the defendants were black and the victims white, and the death sentence was more likely to be handed down when the victim was female. In the last few years, these research findings have made an impact in the ongoing debate in Delaware concerning capital punishment and have been relied on by those arguing against the death penalty.
Juries Around the Globe
Hans has taken her quest to understand juries across the world, studying the participation of lay citizens in the court systems of many countries. In some of these countries such as Korea, lay citizens advise the judge, who makes the final determination of sentencing. In others, like Japan and France, the citizens work together with judges to judge the case and arrive at a sentence. Hans’ research looks at the way in which different systems promote or undermine the contributions of lay citizens.
This is of special interest in Argentina where the world’s newest jury system has only been in existence for a short period of time. Court professionals, like judges, and lawyers, must adapt to the presence of lay citizens. Hans has collaborated with colleagues in Argentina and a team of undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell to study what happens. Because the system is so new, they will have the chance to see how the process evolves and what final form the system will take. “It’s fascinating to see what happens,” Hans says. “Will the court professionals accept the lay citizens’ input? How will the citizens themselves embark on this new venture? The jury is still out.”