By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta

One of the most fundamental rights in our country is the right to a trial by jury.  Many people have claimed, however, that juries are getting the results wrong too often.  Recently, a new Northwestern University study shows that juries in criminal cases many times are getting it wrong.

Out of 271 cases, juries gave wrong verdicts in at least one out of eight cases, according to “Estimating the Accuracy of Jury Verdicts,” a paper by a Northwestern University statistician that was published in the July issue of Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

Spencer had judges listen to the same evidence as the jury and then compared the compared decisions of actual jurors with decisions of judges who were hearing the cases they were deciding. In other words, during deliberations, the judge filled out a questionnaire with his or her belief as to the correct verdict.  In essence, the study used the judges as the “second opinion of what the verdict should be.”

By comparing agreement rates of judges and juries over time and across jurisdictions, and even across types of cases, Spencer’s statistical analysis could give insights into the comparative accuracy of verdicts in different sets of cases.

The agreement rate was 77 percent in the NCSC study and 80 percent for the earlier study.   A key assumption of Spencer’s study is that, on average, the judge’s verdict is at least as likely to be correct as the jury’s verdict.  Based on that assumption, the study found that the 77 percent agreement rate means that juries are accurate up to 87 percent of the time or less, or reach an incorrect verdict in at least one out of eight cases.

It is important to note that the studies on verdict accuracy will not tell whether the verdict for a particular case was correct or not.  This study will simply help assess what percentage of verdicts are correct.

These findings continue to support the fact that mediation is a preferred choice amongst parties in resolving disputes.  This is because mediation moves away from the statistical 13% mistaken ruling and goes to complete control by the parties.  The parties can know in their own case whether something is right or wrong for the circumstances.

Moreover, this research confirms what lawyers have long been saying: There is no guarantee or certainty in trial – even if you are right, you can be wrong.

A technical report is available at http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/publications/papers/2006/wp0605.pdf .

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