Members of the jury -Guilty of incompetence?

Terry M. Honess and Elizabeth A. Charman on how jurors process complex information and overcome pre-trial publicity.
SCEPTICISM about the ability of jurors (individually and collectively) to cope with the demands placed upon them is far from new. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1844 Lord Denman remarked: ‘Trial by jury itself, instead of being a security to persons who are accused, will be a delusion, a mockery and a snare.’ The question of juror competence remains a recurrent feature in both the research and policy literature (Horowitz et al., 1996; Penrod & Heuer, 1997). Indeed, in 1998 the Home Office invited commentary on whether an alternative to the traditional jury system was appropriate for cases of serious fraud. This stemmed specifically from the proposition that lay persons may not be competent to evaluate particularly complex evidence, and was certainly fuelled by acquittals in well-publicised cases, such as that involving the Maxwells in the UK (see e.g. Doran & Jackson, 1997). In this article, research regarding individual juror decisions (not jury decision making) is introduced in respect of two questions. Should trial by jury be waived for so-called complex cases? And are there circumstances under which pre-trial publicity might so ‘contaminate’ the minds of jurors that a fair trial is not possible?

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