If The Jury System Is The Best Option, Can We Make it Better?
By Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg
Vicky Pryce, wife of disgraced ex-MP Chris Huhne, is back in court this week after the jury trying her case was discharged last week having failed to reach a verdict on her charges of perverting the course of justice. In 2003, Pryce accepted Huhne’s speeding points, but is claiming a defence of marital coercion. In 10 questions to the judge, the first jury showed an alarming and deep lack of understanding. Questions included:
“Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it?”
They also showed the jury had apparently forgotten key concepts which were explained during the trial:
“Does this defence require violence or physical threats?”
“Can you define what is reasonable doubt?”
Following the jury’s discharge, the judge said the jury showed “absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding”, adding that he had never seen this in 30 years of presiding over criminal trials. In Pryce’s trial, the questions the jury asked after several days of deliberations raised alarm bells, but in another trial where a verdict was reached, we would never know what the standard of jury understanding or deliberation had been. Yet juries are asked to decide (in some countries) on matters of life or death.
The Pryce case may have been unusual, but in any trial, and particularly in complex fraud cases, juries are asked to juggle and compute vast amounts of information, and to retain it throughout the trial in order to make an informed decision at the end. We have argued in “The Memory of Jurors: Enhancing Trial Performance” and “Cognitive Enhancement in Courts” with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, that cognitive enhancement, particularly memory enhancers should be made available to jurors. If this had been available in the Pryce case, would the jury have spent more time discussing the decision at hand, and less on (mis-)remembering the judge’s instructions on reasonable doubt or the definition of coercion? If we ask people to take on a civic duty we should offer them all the tools we have available to assist them in its completion.
One could argue that the role of the jury is not so much to be a perfect trier of fact as to represent the common public. So if a case is so convoluted that normal people even when trying cannot make sense of it, maybe their confusion should be accepted as a form of verdict (presumably to the favor of the defendant, in dubio pro reo). But an especially incompetent jury – like in this case – is not representative. So in order to have a fair trial it should be made competent enough – either by dismissal and getting a new jury, or if members enhance their cognition enough to do their roles. So even if one views juries as more representatives than fact trying-machines, it makes sense to favour improved cognition.
Trial by jury may be the best of the available judicial options. But it is clearly deeply limited and could do with a good bit of human enhancement. Imagine being an innocent defendant in a complex, tedious fraud case. What kind of jury would you rather be facing?