The “Kettleful of Law” in Real Jury Deliberations: Successes, Failures, and Next Steps

Diamond, Shari Seidman, Murphy, Beth, Rose, Mary R. | September 1, 2012

According to standard lore, when jurors are doused with “a kettleful of law” at the end of a trial, they either ignore it or are hopelessly confused. We present new evidence from a unique data set: not mock jury experiments or post-trial self-reports, but rather the deliberations of fifty real civil juries. Our intensive analysis of these deliberations presents a picture that contradicts received wisdom about juries and the law. We show that juries in typical civil cases pay substantial attention to the instructions and that although they struggle, the juries develop a reasonable grasp of most of the law they are asked to apply. When instructions fail, they do so primarily in ways that are generally ignored in the debate about juries and the law. That is, the jury deliberations reveal that when communication breaks down, the breakdown stems from more fundamental sources than simply opaque legal language. We identify a few modest pockets of juror resistance to the law and suggest why jury commonsense may in some instances be preferable to announced legal standards. We conclude that it will take more than a “plain English” movement to achieve genuine harmony between laypersons and jury instructions on the law.