Emotional Trials

February 5, 2009

The evidence against O. J. Simpson was overwhelming, yet he was acquitted. My former boss was on a jury where the defendant was clearly innocent, supported by strong evidence. The jury ruled for the plaintiff instead, costing the innocent defendant $15,000. I hear these stories often enough that I wondered if these weren’t just isolated cases but common occurrences, and why that might be. Here’s my theory.

In every legal case there’s one side that is legally and logically in the right, perhaps with supporting evidence. There’s also a side that has a strong emotional and human story. Sometimes it’s the same side that has both of these, for example a person who was hurt as a result of a negligent corporation. When one side has both, the case settles and is never seen by a jury. The other side knows they have no chance. We don’t hear about those cases.

But sometimes the legal advantage goes to one side and the emotional to the other. For example, an individual is apparently hurt by a corporation, but it was the individual who was negligent. (I’m reminded of the Coca-Cola driver who killed 21 students after running a stop sign. He sued Coca-Cola.) Here both sides feel like they might win in court. The party with the logical advantage has the law on their side; the party with the emotional advantage believes that the jury will sympathize with them.

These cases end up in front of the jury, and for some sizable fraction of them, the jury is swayed by the emotional argument.

Illogical outcomes of jury trials are therefore common by construction. They’re the ones we see because those where the logical outcomes align with our human sensitivities never see a jury trial at all.