Who is an Ideal Juror?

One of the questions we discussed in yesterday’s narratives and management class is what would constitute an ideal juror and whether the protagonists of A Trial by Jury (Graham Burnett) and Twelve Angry Men (juror number 8, portrayed by Henry Fonda) meet that definition. Burnett came off well in the discussion, with the conclusion that, as foreman, he managed the process effectively and when the discussion showed that most jurors favoured a not guilty verdict he found a respectful way to push the last holdouts to unanimity.

The assessment of juror number 8 was contested. The received opinion, of course, is that he heroically led the eleven other jurors to change their minds. The alternative opinion – presently very persuasively – is that he departed significantly from the profile of an ideal juror, someone rationally and dispassionately assessing the evidence. Rather he made up his mind quickly, and then used a wide variety of persuasive techniques – some more emotional than logical – to sell his conclusion to the others. One instance noted was his baiting of juror number 3 – the angry father – into a confrontation. By this standard, jurors closer to the ideal would be the eminently rational stockbroker (number 4) or European watchmaker (number 11).

I think this is a valuable and thought-provoking commentary on juror number 8. There are a few things, though, we could say in justifying his behaviour. First, it is clear from the deliberations that the accused had very ineffective legal representation. Juror number 8 was, in essence, acting as his lawyer. Second, the standard of decision-making in a jury – unanimity – requires intense interaction among jurors. Third, the movie made it clear that, if convicted, the accused would be executed. So, for the architect, the end – saving an innocent life – justified the means. Juror number 3 emerged from the process embarrassed and possibly humiliated, but juror number 8 would have claimed that he did what had to be done.

One might contrast Burnett and juror number 8 because juror number 8 had to sway eleven colleagues, while, in Burnett’s case, there was a strong majority favouring acquittal from the outset (eight in the first vote), so getting to unanimity was not as difficult.

One question that arose was that of intention and action. Because Twelve Angry Men is presented as a behavioural narrative and because juror number 8 revealed nothing of himself or his thinking, we don’t know whether, for instance, he thought the accused innocent right at the outset and was only feigning uncertainty as a tactic to start the discussion, or whether he was actually uncertain.

A Trial by Jury, as a first person narrative, was much more transparent about the relationship between intention and action in Burnett’s case. Burnett tells us how the trial left him favouring acquittal and how the discussion deepened that belief. Burnett also makes clear why he departed from his initial (and irresponsible) preference for a hung jury and began to push the process toward unanimity.

The three angriest men – juror numbers 3 (the angry father), 10 (the bigot), and 7 (the salesman with baseball tickets) – had what was in effect a meeting-before-the-meeting, where, in the presence of the other jurors, they were quite explicit about their agendas. Normally these would be hidden agendas, but they immediately revealed them. As the deliberations proceeded, it became increasingly evident to the other jurors and even to these three that these hidden agendas were illegitimate reasons for a conviction.

Juror number 8 was a much more skillful player of organizational politics. He knew the importance of keeping his cards close to his chest. The three angriest men were, in contrast, naïve and unsophisticated. Discussions of organizational politics – for example Graham Allison’s Model III – point out that shrewd and experienced players are often reticent about all the considerations they are weighing, thus creating a potential for misexpectation and miscommunication. Despite that systemic problem, experienced players recognize that information is power and that remarks cannot be retracted. Thus, they think very carefully about when and how during a meeting to reveal and commit themselves. But this is a topic for another post.

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