Should Juries Be Ignorant?

I read in the Washington Post today that jurors can get in trouble for looking up the meaning of words. In the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, a juror asked for a dictionary. 

So far, the jury has asked only one question, requesting a dictionary. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema denied the request, saying it would be equivalent to placing extraneous evidence in the jury room. She also warned jurors against conducting their own research, including looking up words.

Everything that I know about trial procedures and juries I learned from Law and Order, so I am in no way an expert on this. I do find the quote disturbing. Trials appear to present two opposing and biased points of view and then ask jurors to reconcile these points of view without reference to anything but what they were presented.

I know that the legal system tries to protect jurors from prejudical information, but this appears to me to be too controlling. Jurors bring a lot of knowledge into the jury room. You cannot control that unless you only select the least informed and unintelligent jurors possible.

As a scientist this strikes me as backwards. You should seek out as much information as possible. Evaluate the quality of the information. Is it reliable? Is it biased? Is it consistent?

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2 Responses to “Should Juries Be Ignorant?”

  1. My husband served on a jury in December in a case involving whether a person was guilty of theft from a car. From what he described, the case presented by the prosecution was not convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. But there were a couple of jurors who made up their minds early on that the perpetrator was guilty. Since the verdict had to be unanimous, it pretty quickly settled into a hung jury.

    So, I wouldn’t worry too much about the judge not allowing a dictionary into the jury room. It’s highly likely that for every juror who might prefer to get as much detail as possible for deciding the case, there’s going to be someone else with a prejudiced view who isn’t going to split hairs in reexamining their bias.

    So theoretically I agree with you, but based on the two court cases I’ve heard about, let’s worry about the dictionary problem once we get a jury full of scientists.

  2. The one time that I made it all the way to jury selection, I was asked about my reading habits. This was before we had the web, so I was reading two newspapers a day and several magazines a week. I did not get picked.

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