In latest FindLaw column (available here) I describe and react to a paper (forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review and available in draft here) by two of my colleagues at Cornell, Valerie Hans and Ted Eisenberg. The paper persuasively argues that the admissibility of a defendant's prior criminal record has several consistent effects: 1) it deters defendants with a record from taking the stand in their own defense; 2) it significantly reduces jury reluctance to convict in marginal cases; 3) it does not affect jury assessment of the defendant's credibility, despite the fact that its admissibility is specifically premised on its relevance to witness credibility. I propose a number of possible reactions one might have to these data, including the radical (or reactionary) notion that we might disqualify criminal defendants from testifying at own trials.
In this post, I want to consider a different (and surprising) fact that emerges from the data: juries do not appear to count prior convictions as "evidence" supporting the likelihood of a defendant's guilt. That is, though juries are more likely to convict a defendant with a prior record, they nonetheless suggest (in rating the strength of the evidence) that the proof against the defendant is apparently no stronger in such cases than it is in prior-record-excluded cases in which juries acquit. That juries would not count a prior conviction as evidence of a defendant's guilt of the crime charged is important (and surprising) in two respects.
First, a major reason that prior convictions are ordinarily thought to pose a risk of unfair prejudice against a criminal defendant is the fear that, regardless of instructions to the contrary, a jury is likely to draw the following inference: the defendant committed crimes in the past and is therefore more likely to have committed the crime for which he is currently being prosecuted. If Hans and Eisenberg are correctly interpreting the data (and my review of their paper suggests that they are), then this fear is not well-founded: juries apparently do not fall into the trap of considering prior bad acts in deciding the likelihood of a particular bad act. Juries understand, in other words, that a person's apparent inclination to commit robbery does not tell us very much about whether it was he or some third party who robbed a particular bank three months ago. This suggests a level of sophistication on the part of the jury about which the evidence law has often been quite dubious.
On the other hand, the second important (and surprising) aspect of juries' ability to discern the relatively low relevance of prior convictions to guilt and innocence in a particular case, is that we are left to conclude that the jury is unable (or unwilling) to apply the standard of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" to defendants who have a prior record. The jury, in other words, is not confused by the evidence; it is instead repelled -- in the case of prior felons -- by the demanding standard of proof. If this is true, then juries appear far more willing than we might have thought to take the law into their own hands. For an ordinary criminal defendant, it is acceptable to allow ten (or a hundred or a thousand...) guilty people go free rather than incarcerate (or execute) one innocent person. But for a habitual criminal, perhaps, this permissive approach to what we might call "wrongful acquittals" is harder for juries to swallow. The stakes may simply feel too great. To put this differently, the downside of a wrongful acquittal, in the case of a defendant with a record, is that a habitual offender is free to offend again, while the downside of a wrongful conviction is that a habitual offender who happens not to have committed the particular crime charged spends time behind bars.
If this is the cost/benefit analysis in play, then the jury is rejecting the fundamental structure of a criminal trial as an assessment of guilt or innocence of a specified act (rather than the suitability of a particular person for preventive detention). This brings to mind the "war on terror" theory of detention with which we have lately become very familiar and may pose a far greater threat to criminal justice than the comparatively benign (but apparently not-so-tempting) inference that a prior offense sheds light on the odds of a presently charged crime.
Posted by Sherry Colb
So just to put this in my own clumsy words, are you basically saying the following?ReplyDelete
Juries apparently don't use prior convictions to bolster evidence for a particular crime, but they may be making larger judgment calls generally about what society should do with folks who have prior records. And maybe that's part of the reason more defendants with prior records are convicted in the end?
And in this sense, that could be worse than allowing prior convictions to inform deliberations about what might have happened in a particular / isolated setting.
Well said. I would just add one refinement. I don't think juries are making judgment calls about what society should do with all defendants with prior records, just that when a person has a prior record, they think it is appropriate to apply a less demanding burden of proof than the law requires them to apply. As a result, if they think it's likely that the defendant committed the crime at issue, they will convict, even though there is a substantial chance that he is innocent (that is, there is a reasonable doubt). For extremely weak cases and extremely strong cases, the burden of proof won't make much of a difference (and the data bear this out -- priors do not persuade juries to convict defendants with prior records when the evidence is rated as weak, and they do not really increase the conviction rate for very strong cases either).ReplyDelete
just that when a person has a prior record, they think it is appropriate to apply a less demanding burden of proof than the law requires them to apply.
So is there really any significant practical difference? I mean in either case -- priors informing "evidence", or application of a lower effective standard -- won't cases likely turn out roughly the same over a span?
If I'm a ref in a basketball game, team B (we'll call them the 'Knicks' :) ) will likely lose whether I make its players shoot on a higher goal (different standard) or take their history of foul trouble into account when considering a specific call.
I think the answer is that there is something very material and significant in juries ignoring required guidance (applying the right standard), regardless of outcomes. OK, so I may have just answered my own question :)
It is arguable that the purpose of juries is to ignore required guidance.ReplyDelete
The article has proven an interesting read so far. I am suspicious still about selection bias, among other things.
Here is a sample from a section titled "Data Description."
Four sites participated in the data collection: The Central Division, Criminal, of the
Los Angeles County Superior Court, California; the Maricopa County Superior Court
(Phoenix), Arizona; the Bronx County Supreme Court, New York; and the Superior Court of
the District of Columbia. Several criteria shaped site selection. First, each site needed a
sufficiently high volume of felony jury trials to permit data collection within a reasonable
time period. Second, court personnel had to be willing to cooperate in data collection,
including agreeing to adhere to privacy and confidentiality protocols. Los Angeles and
Washington, DC were included because of reported concerns about hung jury rates.
Maricopa was chosen to study the effects of an innovative procedure allowing judges to admit
further evidence and arguments in cases with deadlocked juries. The New York State Office
of Court Administration provided suggestions about high volume courts in New York City,
and helped secure the Bronx County Supreme Court’s cooperation.
Social "science" is rife enough with problems in terms of following basic scientific methodology; in the best cases it is nearly impossible. The above is what happens when lawyers try and pretend they are scientists. There was no study done at all of the subject on which they purport to analyze. There was a study that generated original data investigating hung juries. Presumably that study to care to ensure that the data collected were free of various poisons to its subject matter (since I do not have the original study, I cannot comment as to it's rigor). It is very unlikely, however, that the original study took efforts to ensure that other subject matters (including the one suggested by Sherry's colleague's) were likewise protected.
What was done is called data-mining, not research. If it is science at all, it is very bad science. The discussion may be both interesting and the conclusions may be correct, but the methodology employed can give no reassurance to either.
This article is going to be published in a very respected Law Review. The professors are no doubt well respected legal academics. This paper will likely stand as a powerful piece on the subject matter.ReplyDelete
That is, to me, unfortunate. Having completed my read of the article, I can only say that the methodology used in this "study" (and I think that is very generous) is appalling. Apart from having picked a fascinating subject matter there is nothing good I can say about it.
Michael posted some time ago on this blog about the usefulness of shifting to a peer-review system. I can think of no better example than this paper as to why that would be such a very good idea.
Without having given it any thought beyond coming up with the question, it would be interesting to explore whether we should explicitly have limited situations where convicts are subject to a lower standard of proof.ReplyDelete
There are several contexts where one's allotted "margin for error" becomes smaller with each mistake, and they don't all seem prima facie unfair. And indeed, the reason that we have to have a separate rule to preclude propensity evidence, for example, is because it can't be precluded on relevance since people who have done something in the past are more likely to do it again in the future.
I guess the fundamental principle is that a wrongful conviction is so bad that it is okay to exclude many forms of relevant evidence. I agree with that principle, but nonetheless, I wonder if there are specific situations where the risk of harm of a wrongful acquittal so outweighs the risk of harm of a wrongful conviction that an explicitly lowered standard of proof can be justified.
Mr. Scott states, "I do not have the original study, I cannot comment as to it's rigor". I believe the original study is available from the National Center for State Courts and the data are available from ICPSR. So he can fairly easily satisfy himself as to the rigor or lack of it in the original data-gathering effort. I believe his critique would preclude a wide array of secondary analyses of data that appear in peer-reviewed journals. For whatever comfort it may be, both Professor Hans and I have frequently published in peer-reviewed journals. Professor Hans is on the editorial board of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies and I am one of the co-editors of that peer-reviewed journal.ReplyDelete
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