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Social Psychology: Racism in Jury Behaviour Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021


Many of the law’s assumptions regarding human behavior have been contested by research in psychological science, including social psychology. These assumptions have been primarily featured in various legal processes comprising courtroom evidence and decision-making, especially concerning the jury. Juries entail a group of people (often twelve, but sometimes less) who have been conglomerated to decide on a legal dispute.

To comprehend and acquire an understanding of how such decisions are made, researchers have evaluated a myriad of topics, which comprise jury nullification, racial bias, and juror comprehension of legal instruction, among others (Devine & Caughlin, 2014; Sommers & Ellsworth, 2009; Maeder, Yamamoto, & McManus, 2015). This paper aims to examine the evidence and effect of racial bias among juries on legal outcomes. It objectifies to do so by answering the following question: Are members of the public capable of making impartial decisions when selected for a jury, or does the factor of racial bias affect their decisions?

The association between race and juror decision-making is a contentious subject, which has captured the attention of both researchers and legal professionals. However, by carefully examining the methods and results of published studies, it can be noted that the researchers have cast doubt on their conclusions regarding their positive relationship. For instance, in several studies, the sample size was relatively limited, and the findings were statistically insignificant (Elek & Hannaford-Agor, 2014; Williams & Burek, 2008). In summation, racial prejudice serves a function in jury decision-making, and it is more exacerbated in racially inclined trials; however, the strength of the correlation is relatively weak.

Models of Jury Decision-Making

It is vital first to understand how juries make decisions, to properly comprehend how racial bias comes in. Jury decision-making usually factors the decisions of individual jurors. Generally, the models of jury decision-making evaluate the manner through which personal preferences associate during a group discussion to result in an overall verdict, or other cases, no verdict. According to Bradbury and Williams (2013), jury deliberation usually emphasizes convincing the minority to change their vote.

Moreover, when it comes to how the majority exerts informational or normative influence on the minority jurors, it is apparent that the latter comply with the former’s position only when they are convinced. This occurs after a deep thought of the wisdom of the majority; hence, this indicates that informational influence supersedes normative influence during consideration (Bornstein & Greene, 2011). One of the recent trials in which the influence of race on jury decision-making was evident was in the George Zimmerman murder trial. It is suggested that race played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal (Sommers & Ellsworth, 2009).

Race and Juror Behaviour

Scholars and policymakers are equally concerned about the presence of bias in the legal system, especially racial bias. The race has been noted to affect judicial decisions, which emerge from policing decisions to final court verdicts (Bradbury & Williams, 2013). It is essential to note that most studies examining racially motivated decision-making in the legal system have revealed that such decisions are uncorrelated with measures of explicit racial bias – the type of bias that individuals knowingly and openly embrace (Jones & Kaplan, 2010). Stereotypes and attitudes are considered implicit when they are unconsciously accessible via introspection. Jurors hold implicit biases, and sometimes, this can have an ultimate effect on the decision of the jury.

How Defendant’s Race and Ethnicity Influences Jury Decision-Making

Various scholars have examined the subject of the impact of the defendant’s race and ethnicity on jury decision-making. Analysis has mostly been done using a mock jury simulation, whereby the real-life trial summaries were presented to different mock jurors. Through mock juror experiments, researchers were able to manipulate and control variables of interest to allow for a conclusion regarding causal relationships between the two variables. The legal system dictates that jurors impartially assess relevant evidence presented during trials. Nevertheless, empirical research has illustrated that jury decision-making tends to be affected by extraneous, extralegal factors, for instance, race (Maeder et al., 2015; Devine & Caughlin, 2014).

Several mock juror experiments performed in the U.S. and Canada have demonstrated that jurors are prejudicial towards defendants from a racial minority group. For instance, Devine and Caughlin (2014) observed that the defendant’s race could implicitly manipulate the jurors’ expectations on dangerousness, guilt, and credibility; hence, it guided empathy. Similarly, Maeder et al. (2015) noted that in a trial involving auto theft, a White mock jury was more probably to convict Black or Indigenous defendants despite whether or not race was a salient issue in the course of the trial.

In a recent evaluation of the race-crime congruent effect, Maeder, Yamamoto, McManus, and Capaldi (2016) illustrated that the jury was more probable to convict a black defendant accused of auto theft than fraud. However, this is not limited to Canadian research. Jones and Kaplan (2010) conducted an investigation in the U.S. to trace the mechanism of the race-crime congruency through factoring in the defendant’s characteristics. Additionally, they intended to analyze the potential implications of the impact on the amount and type of information utilized in resolving the case.

The results obtained suggested that in instances where the defendant’s race elicited consistency with the crime stereotype, that is, a black defendant accused of embezzlement as compared to a black defendant charged with auto theft, the jury verdict was more positive.

Furthermore, stringent guidelines of reasonable doubt did not lessen the congruent effect. Lastly, it was observed that the race-crime congruency was more inclined to prejudiced juror verdicts than the overall negative racial stereotypes. However, unlike other studies that required further research, in this study, the prediction that guilt is significantly influenced by the race-crime congruence effect limited subsequent information search. Overall, Jones and Kaplan (2010) demonstrated that individual races are associated with specific crimes.

How the Jury’s Racial Composition Influences Jury Decision-Making

Research has illustrated that individual jurors positively perceive defendants of a similar race or ethnicity as compared to those of different races (Devine & Caughlin, 2014). Therefore, this prejudices personal verdict decisions, including sentencing decisions. This phenomenon, referred to as the similarity-leniency bias, mirrors the features of the social identity theory (Devine & Caughlin, 2014).

Following the theory, an individual’s self-regard is impacted by their attributes and characteristics and the group they belong to. Devine and Caughlin (2014) conducted a meta-analysis that has ascertained that race heavily influences jury decision-making. It was observed that jurors belonging to a race similar to that of the defendant were often less guilty than those from a different race. Likewise, Lynch and Haney (2009) revealed that the more the number of White individuals on a capital jury, the higher the probability that a Black defendant is convicted.

The study aimed to examine whether and the manner through which discussions influenced the conception of penalty phase jury instructions and features of racial discrimination in sentencing to death. The jurors provided their individual verdicts then deliberated in 4-7 juries.

The findings of the study suggested that race had a limited effect on jurors’ sentencing behavior. However, it noted a decrease in the propensity of White jurors to sentence White defendants to death less often than Black defendants. Nevertheless, this characteristic of jury behavior is not constrained to capital sentencing. Williams and Burek (2008) conducted research on real jury trials that consisted of non-capital felonies. They examined 200 jury trials in cases that entailed Black defendants from New York, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and California. The results illustrated the presence of a substantial correlation between the racial composition of the jury and the sentencing of Black defendants. Therefore, the higher the composition of Whites in a jury, the more probable that a Black defendant will be convicted.

However, other research has portrayed that the relationship between the two variables is present irrespective of the strength of the prosecution case or type of crime (Bradbury & Williams, 2013). The study hypothesized that jurors of a race similar to that of the defendant are more likely to vote an acquittal, whereas those of different races voting a conviction. The results indicate that it was more likely to convict Black defendants of drug crimes than violent crimes. This phenomenon occurred irrespective of the composition of the jury by race. Furthermore, the findings showed that Black jurors are less likely to declare Black defendants guilty in comparison to White jurors.

Lastly, the bias was also found to be correlated to race salience. Sommers and Ellsworth (2009) suggested the presence of a more silent background issue on the interracial bias. This was after the two previous studies of Sommers and Ellsworth in 2001 and 2003, respectively, established that the impact of the race of the defendant among White mock jurors was more distinct in interracial trials whereby race was a salient issue. This was in comparison to trials encompassing racially charged crimes. The present research had hypothesized that any trial characteristics that resulted in White mock jurors being worried about racial prejudice should warrant the defendant’s race as less influential.

Refuting Evidence

Similar to the findings in mock jury experiments, the evaluation of real-life cases has found the presence of a significant but small correlation between race and jury decision-making. Furthermore, it has been established that response to specific case facts evolves with the changing societal norms. In one recent study by Elek and Hannaford-Agor, a systemic review of other studies shows that there is minimal evidence to implicate a direct association between the defendant’s race and the jurors’ verdict preferences (Elek & Hannaford-Agor, 2014).

This is because studies that entailed decision-making among actual jurors in real trials found that the association between the defendant’s race and jurors accounted for a small amount of variance in the verdicts of the jury. Moreover, the racial bias from research conducted a decade ago did not generate patterns similar to that of contemporary mock jurors (Elek & Hannaford-Agor, 2014).

Many of the past studies comprised of mock juror experiments, in which their methodologies are subject to several limitations that may have affected their outcomes. For example, the utilization of mock juries to evaluate jury behavior may create artificiality, thus inadequately reflecting the real jury decision-making (Williams & Burek, 2008). In addition, several studies in real juries suffer from issues related to incomplete or insufficient trial or jury data (Williams & Burek, 2008). However, Williams and Burek agreed that the probability of convicting individual defendants is dependent on the jury’s racial composition (2008).

Application on Insight

In most studies, the mock-juror/jury experiment was employed. This limited the studies on the number of crimes and the number of races that could be investigated, such that in all instances, two variables were compared. Therefore, future studies could focus on more real-life case scenarios and include Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians to eliminate the potential biases that might arise from the former. Furthermore, future studies could implement the Crime Probability Scale, which evaluates jurors based on their distinct biases. This is because no information concerning the defendants is provided. Not all jurors are prejudiced. Therefore, it is essential to investigate the personal bias of each and how it affects the verdict of the jury.


The effect of race in jury decision-making is varied and complex. This is because it involves the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, the jury’s racial composition, and whether there is an underlying implicit bias or empathy gap. Prejudices in trial outcomes are among the primary causes of racial disparity in the legal system. Based on the above analyses, it is shown that jury decision-making is a consequence of the thoughts of individual jurors.

Hence, with regards to the defendant’s race, the jury’s deliberations and the final verdict are significantly influenced by personal juror perception, which is attributed to their different life experiences and outlook on crime. However, decision-making constitutes more of the race-crime congruence effect and implicit bias as compared to racial stereotypes. Therefore, this implicates that although jury decision-making is liable to racial bias, its impact is minimal.


Bornstein, B., & Greene, E. (2011). Jury decision making: Implications for and from psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(1), 63-67. Web.

Bradbury, M. D., & Williams, M. R. (2013). Diversity and citizen participation: The effect of race on juror decision making. Administration & Society, 45(5), 563-582.

Devine, D. J., & Caughlin, D. E. (2014). Do they matter? A meta-analytic investigation of individual characteristics and guilt judgments. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(2), 109-134.

Elek, J. K., & Hannaford-Agor, P. (2014). . Web.

Jones, C. S., & Kaplan, M. F. (2010). The effects of racially stereotypical crimes on juror decision-making and information-processing strategies. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 25(1), 1-13. Web.

Lynch, M., & Haney, C. (2009). Capital jury deliberation: Effects on death sentencing, comprehension, and discrimination. Law and Human Behaviour, 33(481), 481-496. Web.

Maeder, E. M., Yamamoto, S., & McManus, L. A. (2015). Race salience in Canada: Testing multiple manipulations and target races. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21(4), 442-451.

Maeder, E. M., Yamamoto, S., McManus, L. A., & Capaldi, C. A. (2016). Race− crime congruency in the Canadian context. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 48(2), 162-170.

Sommers, S., & Ellsworth, P. (2009). “Race salience” in juror decision‐making: Misconceptions, clarifications, and unanswered questions. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 27(4). 599-609. Web.

Williams, M. R., & Burek, M. W. (2008). Justice, juries, and convictions: The relevance of race in jury verdicts. Journal of Crime and Justice, 31(1), 149-169. Web.

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