The jury is arguably the cornerstone of our legal system, and few rights are more ancient or precious than the right to have one’s guilt or innocence decided by one’s peers. A soon to be released study of 290 non-capital criminal cases claims that U.S. juries get the verdict wrong in one out of six cases. However, buried in this news article on the supposedly shocking study is the revelation that judges are even more fallible than juries. According to the study, juries mistakenly convicted innocent people 25 percent of the time, while judges did so 37 percent of the time. The difference is not so quite extreme when we consider acquitting the guilty. Juries acquitted the guilty at a rate of only 10 percent, compared to 13 percent for judges.*
Studies like this always strike me as a little suspect, and are inevitably ripped to pieces after publication; but let’s assume its conclusions are true. Ok, so juries are not perfect, but they have to go on what they are told, so we have no idea if these mistaken convictions and acquittals may have been due to prosecutorial misconduct, withheld evidence, or incompetent defense counsel. However, if you consider that judges are well-educated, experienced professionals, see additional evidence that juries do not, and manage to make more mistakes, then the jury still appears a preferable proposition. Of course, mistakes will be made, but that is why we have appeals, pardons, DNA testing, and Bill Kurtis (we found out about all these mistakes somehow).
So why do we entrust juries with such important decisions, when most countries place their faith in judges? My guess is that long ago our ancestors figured out that a jury of peers made an excellent platform for challenge processes. A challenge process is an MBM model by which employees are free to challenge the status quo, ideas, superiors, subordinates, and peers. While it is important to remain respectful, challenges are crucial to discovery and improvement. Effective challenge allows the firm to make more profitable decisions and avoid costly mistakes. The jury makes for a good challenge environment because it is a black box where words and ideas are expected to fly freely among peers and prying eyes are not allowed. Sure, there are likely to be instances of groupthink (where a group makes a hasty consensus decision without careful—or even any—analysis), but the fact that juries are drawn from all walks of life and ideological backgrounds, combined with a lack of strong leadership (the foreman is pretty much just a spokesman) makes groupthink in a jury much less likely than ,say in any President’s cabinet. Compare this to judges who, despite their greater experience and knowledge, are unlikely to challenge themselves in their decisions.
Employees are often both reluctant to give and receive challenge, but this is usually because they work in an environment that is not conducive to the challenge process. So if you are reluctant to challenge or feel your work environment is not open to challenge just think that some of the most important decisions in our society—whether to deprive someone of life or liberty—are only made after a rigorous challenge process, which is why it is so important for employees to safeguard their livelihoods, and those of their coworkers, with adequate challenge.
*The article first says that judges were only wrong 12 percent of the time, while juries were wrong 17 percent of the time. However, data are then presented showing that judges convict the innocent and release the guilty at higher rates than juries. Without the study I cannot explain this contradiction, but since, according to the article, juries appear to have a higher accuracy rate at convicting the guilty and sparing the innocent than judges; then I can only assume a jury trial is arguably preferable to a bench trial.