Deliberative Thoughts Part 4: Conforming Complications on a Jury

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

This is the 4th installment in a series that reflects my time in January & February 2023 serving on a grand jury in Rhode Island.  You can read about part 1part 2, and part 3 if you need to catch up.

A group of sheep staring at the camera
Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

The six weeks serving on grand jury duty gave me opportunities to observe (and experience) how human conformity is ever-present and can play an integral role in making the duty more a formality than a process.  While I can’t say for certain this is intentionally part of the overall structure, I can say that it was certainly capitalized upon by the district attorneys that were presenting cases before us.  That is, there were many habits of the jurors and practices by the DAs that facilitated or communicated the conformity of the group.

So what did that conformity look like?  The jurors themselves are a good place to start. Each day, the jurors (including myself) sat in the same seats as if we were in class, ready to learn with our teacher.  An extra bit for conformity is how the room was nearly split by gender with a near-perfect line traceable between men and women.  What compelled us to not only split by gender but take up the same seats and what did that tell the DA about the kind of jury we were?    

The DAs did their fair share to reinforce a sense of comradery and comfort.  Often, they chatted us up prior to the proceedings, made jokes, and commiserated about serving duty.  They talked about their families, their weekend plans, and other details that made them more than just representatives of the state. They humanized themselves to us and many of the police officers that came in as witnesses.  All of this created a sense of community and connection with them which is not a bad idea within a criminal justice and larger cultural system that fails to do this, but it was also one-sided. The suspects didn’t get to be humans; they were often faceless, lacking any positive attributes, and only framed in relation to their crimes.  

 I want to emphasize the importance of language here and the ways that the anchor effect can really impact us.  Rarely did we hear the word “suspect” which, is accurate and also as a result of massive amounts of court-room based TV, also overly ripe for negative connotation.  Instead, we constantly heard about the “target”--another term that alienates and distances us from the person under investigation.  And yes, we dealt with some folks who were in all likelihood doing horrible things and should be held accountable.  But the consistent language used to alienate and dehumanize all folks under investigation creates an imbalance of partiality where we’re overwhelmingly comfortable and connected with those making the accusations and not those being accused–inevitably, whether we want it to or not, it creates trust that can eat away at an appropriate level of skepticism, given what our role is in this system.  

I continually found myself struck by the loaded language being used–at times, colorful adjectives that created a contrast between nonpresent suspects and well-dressed, and respectful witnesses.  These things impacted how we viewed the event and how we discussed the case.

Of course, then there were the times when the DAs or officers let it slip about the prior criminal history of the suspect.  Now, these are professionals who do this work day in and day out–who know that they are not supposed to share about a suspect’s criminal past, but it happened regularly.  Every time, they were also quick to say, “You cannot make a negative inference from that, ok?”  That’s right, because we’re all good at not thinking about a purple elephant when someone tells us not to.  

They told us things but never told us how to do things.  For instance, we were told that we could solicit witnesses, but it wasn’t clear how to do so.  It also wasn’t made clear if the witness request could be by one person or a majority or the whole group. We also were not made aware of all possible witnesses, just the ones they brought before us.  

 Now, these elements don’t generate conformity.  Yet we were encouraged to finish soon because we would have the rest of the day free according to the DA.  As I mentioned in a previous post, we were told that the court couldn’t report when we left and therefore was covered for the day in case we wanted to skip out on work.  So think about how these things fit together.  We know about a process only in name, that process would inevitably take more time, and we’ve been told that we can be released from this work that pays $25 a day as soon as we finish.  That certainly pulls people in a particular direction, knowingly or not.  

Another strong area of conformity arose when it came to interviewing victims.  We had no training or guidance about interviewing victims–and we dealt with some serious and horrible crimes.  We’re a room of people who mostly did not directly work with folks who have been traumatized.  But the weight of the violence that the victims faced sat in the room and without training, it made it incredibly hard to ask questions if there were contradictions. 

How do you ask a young victim a question–any question–about what happened to them and not feel like an utter asshole?  Maybe others could do it, but I certainly didn’t feel equipped to do so. So, in the face of feeling inept, unprepared, or unable to push forward a question, we largely let victims go without any additional information gathering.  And while that feels right in some ways, it left gaps in our understanding and ability to fully examine the case before us. And, it feels like that was the intention.

Finally, conformity happened with nearly every vote.  We voted by a show of hands and we just needed thirteen people to vote in the affirmative in order to pass a “true bill”--that the person would be charged.  This mechanism left folks with a sense of futility or unwillingness to discuss it further.  In the first few cases, there would be discussion but when it became clear that folks didn’t want to discuss it–that they wanted to be done with the case and (potentially) leave for the day or move onto the next case.  So even when folks had points they wanted to make or draw out, it became increasingly harder to do so and just conform to this idea of vote and move on.  

If there was any proof that we had conformed in the way that we were expected, we got the canned speech from the lead DA who was with us during much of the time, telling us that we “really” did our jobs and that not all juries take their jobs as serious as we do.  I say canned becuase it was delivered to us twice with all the emotional resonance of ordering a morning coffee.  

Within all of this, was, of course, my own conformity. The first few times, I tried to pull out concerns, to point to questions left on the table, and asked if we can really trust complicated and contradictory arguments and charges, particularly when the DAs were just throwing whatever they could and seeing if it stuck.  But this too slowly dissolved as the pull of the group’s habits dragged me along. 

I’m also aware that so many of these thoughts arose to me (though maybe not as fully formed) during the course of Grand Jury duty–I had two sets of notes.  Ones that were for the crimes (which the court held onto) and one set of notes that were my own observations.  Many of these ideas and concerns I had, I could have brought up but did not.  Some of it was because they weren’t developed enough to speak to effectively, but I also was hesitant to ruffle the room where I would need to be stuck in for 6 weeks–with folks who represented the state.  This structure too kept me in line.  

For a country that supposedly loves its individuality, the courtroom and centuries long-practices by the state seem to have made it a place that can mold that individuality into ways of conformity.  That conformity does not benefit the individual jurors but makes the district attorneys’ jobs easier; and of course, the accused are the ones most negatively affected by these practices. 

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