The Problem with Stereotyping When It Comes to Jury Selection

It is very common in mock trials and deliberation groups, as well as many jury selections, to hear someone make the following, or similar, comment, “Well, we certainly don’t want any teachers (or nurses, or social workers, or ‘[you fill in the blank]’) on our panel!” In particular, individuals in many of the “helping” professions are stereotypically viewed by the defense as “bad” jurors likely to be overly sympathetic to and uncritical about the injury and/or damage claims of the plaintiff. While it is natural to look for easily identifiable characteristics as criteria for jury deselection, the reality is that the world is just more complicated than that. Our many years of jury selection and mock trial experience have shown that it is very rare indeed for demographic characteristics, including someone’s profession, to be a valid distinguisher of jurors’ ultimate decisions in a case.

For example, in one of our cases involving financial institutions, the complexities involved in the case led many to assume that jurors who would be “good” for the financial institution would be those in professions involving money and/or accounting and thus, would be familiar and comfortable with complex financial matters. Imagine the surprise when one of the jurors most opposed to our case was an individual with a professional brokerage background. Not only was he vehemently hostile to our case, he was vocal and used enough “insider” language to be very convincing to his fellow jurors. So, despite the stereotype of “accounting types” being good for financial institutions, this individual would have been a disaster for the defense if he landed on the jury at trial.

Attitudes and Experiences Are What Count in Jury Selection

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As the above example illustrates, in most cases, stereotypes of “good” or “bad” jurors (which generally involve demographic categories) aren’t very helpful or accurate as standalone distinguishers when identifying the jurors most “dangerous” to your case.

Over and over, research and experience have proven that what really counts are attitudes and experiences that make it difficult, if not impossible, for individual jurors to be fair – to listen to your case with an open mind. For example, all teachers simply do not have the same experiences and attitudes and should not be lumped into one group. Taking a deeper dive into the type of teacher they are can help identify the experiences that may or may not be helpful for your case.

Let’s take a high school teacher versus a kindergarten teacher. These teachers are exposed to different experiences in their daily work lives based on the roles they take with their students. That is, the high school teacher tends to deal with the rambunctious and obstinate teenager, such that these teachers typically adopt an authoritative role, whereas the kindergarten students have different needs and, therefore, we tend see these teachers taking on a nurturing role with their young students. Similarly, emergency room nurses roles are very different than pediatric nurses. Not only are these types of nurses likely to have had very different experiences, those who choose to go into these respective specialties probably have different personalities and attitudes.

The Psychology Behind Not Letting Stereotypes Rule in Jury Selection

We know from psychology and the cognitive sciences that when humans are faced with conflicting, difficult and/or ambiguous facts, their cognitive “filters,” based on their sensibilities that are developed over their lifetime, determine what information is accepted; information consistent with what they already believe is true “gets in,” and information that is inconsistent tends to get ignored or partially ignored. While some people are open to hearing and assimilating your “side of the story,” the filters other jurors hold so powerful that they cannot set them aside enough to “hear” your case. So the important task is to identify what combination of experiences and attitudes characterize and identify those jurors who, no matter what you say, just aren’t going to be open to hearing your case.

How to Best Use Demographics in Jury Selection

Of course, sometimes demographic categories are part of an overall profile of your “dangerous” jurors, but they are almost always in combination with attitudes and experiences that are relevant to the case. So, for example, “older women” may be part of your pro-plaintiff profile, but it is not all older women who are problematic. It is those who are also suspicious of big companies and think large damage awards keep people honest. Their attitudes are what identify the “older women” who are likely predisposed against your case.

The Exception to the Demographic Rule

The one exception to the overall “rule” that demographic categories are generally not “key” distinguishers of dangerous jurors is when the issue at the heart of the case is a demographic category. For example, if your case is an age discrimination case, when looking for those jurors who might identify with the plaintiff, you’re going to look at older workers. Age is the key issue in the case. But even then, exploring the attitudes and experiences of jurors to identify who will likely sympathize with the plaintiff is critical to determining which of the older individuals are predisposed to support the plaintiff’s case. 

Conclusion

In the end, attitudes and experiences are what count in jury deselection. Demographic stereotypes are, at best, only one small part of an overall profile.

Have further questions about the best methods of jury selection for your case? Contact us here today.

 

 Barbara-Hillmer By:  Barbara Hillmer, Ph.D. – Senior Consultant