Jury Trials and Human Psychology
Like many, I have been following the Derek Chauvin murder trial in Minnesota and have viewed the case with interest ever since the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 – almost a year ago. Naturally, as an attorney who has handled many jury trials in his career, I have found myself focusing in on the legal aspects and specifically the testimony of the witnesses and whether I find them credible and believable. But what I have found most fascinating is that, when I listen and read what others are saying about the trial, a huge number of opinions diverge from mine on this point. That then leads to the obvious question: How can two people view the same evidence, listen to the same witnesses and come to completely opposite conclusions?
The truth is that this happens more often than not in the overwhelming majority of jury trials. I have lost count of the number of times I put a witness on the stand who I thought was the lynchpin of my case only to find out later that the jury did not assign as much weight to their testimony as I thought they would. On the other hand, there have been times where I have had clients and witnesses testify and thought they did very poorly only to discover that the jury had a very different perception of their testimony. In many instances, what attorneys may consider “poor” testimony is perceived by a jury as sympathetic which makes the witness more likeable and therefore more believable.
It is a powerful reminder that human nature and psychology is a huge part of any jury trial and that you simply cannot assume or infer that you know how six individuals will assess the information and arguments you place in front of them. In fact, whenever I have settlement conversations with a client, it is something that I always mention. The second you walk into a courtroom and present your case, there is a huge element of chance that determines the outcome. Testimony and evidence that may be credible and persuasive to one juror may be insignificant – or worse yet, detrimental – to another juror.
One specific case comes to mind. I represented a plaintiff in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City who claimed to have been struck by a car as a pedestrian. He was a very difficult client who was resistant to my attempts to properly prepare him prior to trial and then, from my perspective, did a terrible job testifying at trial. The opposing attorney did an excellent job cross-examining him and although I gave what I thought was a very good closing argument, I was convinced that not only had we lost the case, but it was likely to be my shortest jury deliberation ever. I could not have been more wrong. The jury not only found in favor of my client, but awarded significantly more damages than we could ever have anticipated. They had clearly found my client believable and persuasive even though I genuinely perceived it otherwise.
Every litigator has similar stories – it is certainly not unique to me. The reality is that nobody can truly predict what the outcome of any case is going to be because human nature impacts all of it and all human beings are different and perceive things differently. It sounds obvious, but it’s also something that many lawyers – and people in general – frequently overlook.
So as I continue to follow the Chauvin trial, I will remind myself that neither my opinion nor the opinion of any other commentator or analyst truly matters. The only thing that matters will be the opinions of those 12 jurors who will deliberate and render a decision once the case is over. We don’t know what they are thinking or how they are evaluating the evidence or how their individual life experiences inform their judgment and opinions. And this is an important lesson and reminder not just for trial lawyers like me, but for life in general.