Eager to perform my civic duty, I arrived at the Taunton Superior Court in Massachusetts on a Monday morning in March of 2010. Despite my willingness to serve as a juror, I hoped my time commitment would be limited to just a few hours. I would then be on my way with a renewed “get-out-of-jury-duty card” in hand for the next couple years. I was always excused before. My number was usually too high or the case settled once the jury pool was in the room. Proudly, I could say I fulfilled my service, but with little effort. By the end of the fifth day, I left the courtroom physically and emotionally exhausted.
The defendant was a 40-year-old man accused of assault with the intent to rape a child under the age of 16 and indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14. The alleged victim was his daughter. It was clear from the first words of testimony there would be no winners in this case. The personal devastation and the negative impact on society already had been firmly established. The question was one of justice.
While there were significant pre-trial restrictions on the evidence provided, the circumstances became clear. Albert was already in prison for drug trafficking. Every indication was the home of this family was a crack house and a nearby convenience store served as a front for distribution. There was no way to paint a positive picture of this situation. As the information accumulated, the depths of misconduct and neglect were overwhelming. If the trial was about creating a horrible environment for children, conviction would have been easy. Yet the evidence for these charges was the lone claim of a young girl, who had remained silent for several years. It was her word against his.
Once the testimony was complete and we were charged on the technicalities of the law, we assembled in the jury room. To my utter surprise we were almost evenly split on both charges. Some were unable to accept the story of a young girl, others had sympathy for the defendant, a few of us were persuaded this girl had been profoundly abused. Everyone was confused. The days were spent in argument, writing on flip charts, recreating events, educating ourselves about legal procedure and discussing the limits of the evidence presented. We had to start over as one juror was excused for an emergency. Another thought a simple majority should rule and was stunned when we explained the requirement of unanimity. At one point a well-respected member suggested a deal; we could find him guilty of indecent assault, but acquit him of the attempted rape charge. It was seriously considered. The entire process was incredibly painful. We returned to the judge twice to share our frustration at being deadlocked, only to be sent back to try harder with some standard advice. At that point I wished I had the authority to decide the case myself.
James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, describes many settings in which groups of people have made decisions far superior to what an individual would have achieved. He writes,
One of the striking things about the wisdom of crowds is that even though its effects are all around us, it’s easy to miss, and, even when it’s seen, it can be hard to accept. Most of us believe that valuable knowledge is concentrated in a very few hands (or, rather, in a very few heads). We assume that the key to solving problems or making good decisions is finding that one right person who will have the answer. (pp. XIV-XV)
Does collective wisdom outweigh individual expertise? I’ve had to think a lot about this. I had a colleague years ago who insisted if we gave him every decision to make on his own, the institution we served would be much better off. I liked his chutzpah, but not all of his opinions. I’ve also had the experience of playing the “stranded on the moon game” (another version is set in the desert) where individual expertise is compared to the wisdom of the group in finding ways to survive. The group seems to always do better than the individuals.
Our jury was well into the fifth day when the judge’s instructions took on a greater clarity. It was “our duty to decide the case” and “we are the finders of fact.” That blew me away. Were we actually being placed in a situation where we had to determine the “truth” based entirely on our collective wisdom? We returned to the jury room and studied the exact language of the statutes in question and realized we had not looked deeply enough to connect the evidence with the requirements of the law. We voted and had one hold-out juror. She was not very popular. The pressure on her was intense. By this time I would have been pleased to have anyone else on Earth decide the case and a mistrial grew more appealing as the hours passed. We reviewed the entire case again from beginning to end. Eventually our hold-out juror relented. The defendant was convicted on both charges and later sentenced to 10 years plus 15 years of supervised release.
The trial was complete. Yet the judge made it her practice to meet with jurors after each trial to answer questions and offer her thanks. Those with doubts were the most anxious to hear her thoughts. It was then we learned that his entire criminal record was not presented to us. It would have been far too prejudicial. He also had more serious charges pending for which he will be tried in the coming days.
I based my decision to convict on the testimony of a young girl who bravely took the stand and presented a plausible scenario consistent with the surrounding circumstances. There were no direct witnesses, nor was there any physical evidence. In the end, the truth of the matter was determined entirely by collective wisdom. Was justice served?