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Fairer Justice

Fairer JusticeRacially diverse juries can reach fairer verdicts by sharing information more efficiently and deliberating more diligently, reports a new study by Tufts' Sam Sommers.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.24.06] According to a new study by Sam Sommers, an assistant professor of psychology at Tufts, juries containing both black and white members are likely to share more information about the case than all-white groups, leading to more thoughtful deliberations and possibly fairer verdicts.

In the study of mock juries, diverse panels deliberated longer, raised more facts about the case, and conducted broader and more wide-ranging deliberations, according to Sommers. They also made fewer factual errors in discussing evidence and when errors did occur, those errors were more likely to be corrected during the discussion.

Past coverage: Tufts' Kent Portney and Sam Sommers share a devotion to innovative research and teaching about the roles race and gender play in the criminal justice system.

"I think the argument could be made that in a homogeneous group, where everyone is like us, it's easy to be a little lazier, and take those cognitive shortcuts," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Diversity seems to be one potential way to shake us out of that, and to attend more carefully to our surroundings."

The study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that not only does jury diversity benefit the deliberation process, but that simply being part of a diverse group affects the way white jurors think and behave, even before deliberations begin.

"I think the traditional perception about diversity is that [it] is going to be a good thing because African Americans will bring something novel to the table," Sommers, who coordinates the Diversity & Cognition Colloquium Series at Tufts, told the Times. But, he says, "a lot of the results of this study come from white jurors acting differently when they were in diverse groups."

According to an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times, the study "should give impetus to a lonely campaign by [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer] to make it easier to impanel juries that are more reflective of the community."

The editorial page of the Times found Sommers' work on diversity and decision-making significant.

"It's Sommers' conclusion about the value of a diverse jury that is likely to reverberate," according to the editorial. "It has been 20 years since the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for lawyers to use so-called peremptory challenges—those requiring no stated reason—to exclude potential jurors because of their race."

The Times wrote that these new findings could help curb this practice.

"Peremptory challenges long have been criticized as a form of racial discrimination," according to the editorial. "If Sommers' study is correct, such challenges also make it less likely that jurors will work their hardest to arrive at the truth."

Sommers studied 121 individuals from a jury pool at a Michigan courthouse and 79 jury-eligible individuals recruited through newspaper advertisements. All were randomly assigned to six-person panels, most with an alternate, that were either all white or included four white and two black members.

Half of them answered a voir dire (meaning "to speak the truth") questionnaire gauging attitudes on race; the other half responded to a general demographics survey that didn't address race. Afterward, each jury watched a video summary of a trial of a black man charged with sexually assaulting white victims.

After the "trial," the jurors were asked privately if they felt the defendant was guilty. Of those who answered the race-related questionnaire, 34 percent said the man was guilty; of those who didn't, 47 percent found him culpable.

Also, in the multiracial groups, 34 percent of white jurors said the defendant was guilty, compared to 50 percent in the all-white juries.

The study found that white jurors on the diverse juries were more likely to talk about the factor of racism and to be more factually accurate, and that the diverse juries debated for a longer period of time overall.

Noted the online edition of The Times ( UK), "The findings suggest that, quite apart from the moral arguments for more racial diversity, there is a strong practical case for it. Racially diverse juries appear more competent at making group-based decisions."

According to Sommers, this has implications for groups and institutions far beyond the jury room.

"Diversity, at least in a group decision-making context, has some real benefits—and for everyone in the group," he says.

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