Judicial Notebook

Three days before Christmas, a New York jury told their judge they were deadlocked after deliberating for more than 11 hours. Judge Barbara Kahn ordered them to continue deliberating and said they would return the next day if they did not reach a verdict. An hour later, the jury found the defendant, John White, guilty of manslaughter. Two jurors reportedly were leaning toward acquittal but changed their minds because of the judge's orders and hostile fellow jurors.

The defendant's attorneys are considering an appeal, stating that the judge's order influenced the verdict by unfairly pressuring jurors who were in the minority (i.e., favoring an acquittal). Psychological research concerning social and time pressure indicate that these concerns may have merit.

Juries under stress

The U.S. Supreme Court has approved instructions ordering a deadlocked jury to continue deliberations, often referred to as a "dynamite charge." For instance, the judge may tell jurors "a dissenting juror should consider whether his doubt was a reasonable one which made no impression upon many men, equally honest as himself" (Allen v. U.S., 1896; p. 501). The National Center for State Courts reports that hung juries occur in about 6 percent of cases. Hung juries tax the judicial system and prolong the process through retrials. Such instructions are an attempt to avoid this outcome.

A judge's dynamite charge could make jurors feel coerced into changing their votes. It also leads those in the majority to exert more pressure on jurors in the minority. More broadly, this research suggests that minority jurors are not conforming based on informational influence (i.e., because they are actually persuaded), but because of normative influence (i.e., because of social pressure). Informational influence is an inherent part of the process, whereby some jurors seek to convince others of the rightness of their position. Jurors should not make decisions because of normative pressure from other jurors, which is likely to be exacerbated by a dynamite charge. Nevertheless, the procedure has been upheld (Lowenfield v. Phelps, 1988), and codified in many states (e.g., 17 AZ Rev. Statutes, Rules of Criminal Procedure, 22.4).

Jurors in the New York case could also have been influenced by time pressure. In general, there are no limits on deliberation time, but the jurors may have felt pressure to reach a quick decision because of the upcoming holiday. Juries in other cases might experience similar pressure to wrap up a long trial or finish before the weekend. Research indicates that decisions made under time pressure are not as sound as those made under less pressure due to factors such as greater reliance on heuristic reasoning.

Psychological and legal implications

A popular image of jury deliberations is from "Twelve Angry Men," the play where one determined holdout eventually convinces other jurors through long and contentious deliberations. But in reality, individuals who are tired and under social and time pressures are much more likely to lose willpower and give in.

Being in a minority faction during a group task is stressful, even without these additional pressures; lengthy deliberations, even without the sort of explicit or implicit deadline imposed by a dynamite charge, can cause additional stress for jurors. Stress in general can impede quality decision-making and encourage jurors to give in to the social pressure of the majority. It is impossible to know whether the majority or minority position is the "correct" one, so a minority (or lone) juror's caving in to pressure does not necessarily produce an undesirable outcome; it clearly does produce an undesirable process, as pressured jurors are potentially reaching the right outcome for the wrong reasons.

From a legal standpoint, a defendant is entitled to a verdict that reflects jurors' genuine beliefs, not one made to conform to normative pressures, to end a lengthy deliberation or to meet an implicit deadline imposed by a dynamite charge.

As jurisdictions across the country contemplate and enact jury reforms, they should consider the propriety of this procedure. Psychologists, for their part, should continue to study the effects of social and time pressure on both the process and outcome of group decision-making tasks such as jury deliberation.


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).