jurors do the impossible

I went in for jury duty yesterday for the first time in my life. I learned a lot about the nitty-gritty mechanics of a trial. I was put into the jury box for voir dire, where the judge and the lawyers ask you a bunch of questions to determine whether they want to leave you on the jury or get a replacement. (I was tossed out.)

One thing that struck me during this voir dire questioning is that the judge asks you to do two things that, I think, are impossible. First, he asks you if you can be completely and totally impartial. I'm not a psychologist, but I've seen plenty of studies showing that basically no one is thoroughly impartial; unconscious biases run through our thinking.

Second, the judge asks you if you can refrain from coming to a belief about the accused's guilt or innocence until you enter the jury deliberation room -- that is, after you have heard all the evidence, followed by the judge's specific instructions about the law. If you think that belief is involuntary (as many do), then this is impossible.

I recognize that these 2 things are ideals to strive for, and most likely the judge and lawyers recognize that they cannot be perfectly achieved. By re-interpreting these 2 demands to myself as ideal goals, I felt OK about agreeing to them. But I still felt weird asserting that I could do two things that, if understood literally, I think are impossible.


Chris said...

This is why philosophers are never asked to be on juries!

Michael Drake said...

My favorite psychologically-impossible-to-follow instructions are:

(1) Disregard certain evidence ("That confession counsel mentioned? Disregard that."); and

(2) Consider a defendant's criminal record in regard to the credibility of his testimony but not as evidence of bad character.