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12 Jurors ... 1 Verdict

Criminal Justice Professor John Clark Studies Behavior of Juries

First it was O.J. Simpson. And most recently, Casey Anthony.

Both of these televised trials captured the attention of America. Millions followed along, glued to the television for each court proceeding. But cliffhanger verdicts in both cases left bystanders surprised and shocked.

In a system created to pursue justice regardless of personal opinion, the occasional high drama case still leaves the curious public wondering, What were jury members thinking?

If anyone can answer that question, it is Dr. John Clark, assistant professor of criminal justice at The University of Texas at Tyler. Dr. Clark has researched jury behavior for more than 11 years. He has written three books on his findings and has been interviewed multiple times by the national media, including the New York Times.

“I have administered surveys to over 10,000 real world jurors to examine extra-legal variables such as attitudes, ideologies and demographics including race, sex, age and education. I suppose the one thing I have learned is that there is no such thing as an impartial jury,’’ Dr. Clark said.

“We are human, thus, we all have unique personalities, attitudes, biases and tendencies. When jurors show up for jury duty, they do not place their lives on hold. The problems they have in the real world follow them into the courtroom.”

He hopes his research reveals just how complicated jury decision-making is.

“Ultimately, the goal of my research is two-fold. First, I want to help bridge the gap between the social sciences and the law and, secondly, further understand human behavior in a juror setting,’’ he said. “Understanding juror behavior can ultimately lead to improving the jury system.’’

A Calling

Dr. Clark first became fascinated with jury decision-making while serving as a law clerk in a district attorney’s office and the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.

“I recognized early on this was my calling with respect to research,” he said. “Jury service is a great example of democracy in action. I often think about the sacrifice that so many men and women have made in order for us to have trial by jury. I’m really passionate about this research. I live and breathe it. ”

Dr. Clark said he is just as passionate about teaching the process of law, as studying it. For three years, he has shared his knowledge about the criminal justice system with students at UT Tyler. He teaches an introduction to criminal justice, as well as courses on ethics, criminology and jury decision-making.

“In all the courses I teach, there is a courts component. Thus, I am able to share my experiences and research,’’ Dr. Clark said.

“Research makes us better teachers, better professors. … When we engage in research and share our studies with students, they enjoy learning about it. I take my research to every single class. I have even involved outstanding students in my research.”

Fascinating Findings

Extra-legal variables, such as attitudes, ideologies and demographics matter in the jury box, Dr. Clark said. “We are individuals and we are prone to prejudice and bias. When you cross the threshold of the courtroom, you don’t forget who you are.”

But despite those individual factors, Dr. Clark said, something incredible happens during the process of a trial: The jurors become one entity.

“Jurors ultimately form and develop their own group identity or personality,” he said. “The 12 jurors actually become one. Through the process, they become invested in something together. Those 12 people share something . . . the experience.”

Dr. Clark said technology has impacted that experience across the country – from completing juror questionnaires online to the inability to isolate jurors from easily accessible information.

“I go to court about every week and I am amazed at the number of persons on Blackberries, iPhones . . . we are always connected. You rarely find anyone who does not have a smart phone or who is not registered with some social media platform. Jurors are ordered to avoid discussing the case and conducting independent research. However, we are finding more and more mistrials due to juror misconduct,” Dr. Clark said.

“Concerning the theatrics of the courtroom, just as we have ‘smart’ classrooms, we are finding ‘smart’ courtrooms. Attorneys who fail to incorporate technology into their presentations can be judged more harshly by jurors. We are dealing with expectations,” he said.

Scientific evidence can affect verdicts, but not in a way you might imagine, Dr. Clark added. “Television shows and movies paint a picture that is far different than the real world court system. Research demonstrates that jurors who are ‘CSI’ viewers are more likely to expect scientific evidence.”

The reality of the American justice system is that high profile trials like that of Casey Anthony are few and far between.

“Lay persons watch this type of trial and assume this is how the entire court system works,” Dr. Clark said. “This is simply not the case. The overwhelming majority of criminal defendants do not have the monies to hire a so-called dream team of experts.”

The Need for Counseling

Jury service is not glamorous, but it is an important civic duty and “a cornerstone of our democracy,’’ the professor noted.

“We should embrace jury service with open arms. Individuals who complete jury duty often leave with a sense of pride and accomplishment. But many jurors sit on cases that are very graphic and violent in nature. For years, I have been speaking to court officials about the stress of jury service. One day I hope all courts will provide counseling for those jurors who are in need. We simply can’t forget about our jurors once their service is complete.”

Dr. Clark uses his research findings to speak about and offer counseling to jurors traumatized by what they see and hear in the courtroom.

“Jury counseling and debriefing . . . is my mission,” he said. “I’m leading the way to ensure that jurors throughout the country have access to counseling after their service. I’m traveling the country to spread that message. The calls and emails for assistance keep coming in.”

More than a few people are interested in what Dr. Clark has to say about the reality of trials where jurors are concerned. In addition to being interviewed by news media, Dr. Clark has published numerous articles and is writing his fourth book, about the jury foreperson. It is due to be published next year.

His research of jurors is ongoing.

“I have 10 separate studies in development or going on right now,’’ Dr. Clark said. “There is still much work to be done.”

Dr. Clark holds a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies (psychology and criminal justice) and a master of science in criminal justice, both from the University of Alabama. He has professional memberships including the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, The American Society of Criminology, American Psychology-Law Society, Southern Criminal Justice Association and Southwestern Association of Criminal Justice.

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