ALL THINGS JURY: Does popular culture impact juries?

CHARLESTON -- In previous columns I have described factors that influence jurors. These factors have included group dynamics whereby people influence each other and individual lifestyle and values that affect juror opinions.

One of the more interesting topics to consider as influential of juror behavior is popular culture. In particular, the entertainment industry has considerable impact on how people perceive our justice system. There has been a proliferation of books, movies and television programs that utilize law enforcement and the justice system as a framework for story telling.

So, how do these stories impact people who sit on a jury panel? One of the issues I often see in my work is "the little guy should win" syndrome. Think about it. How many times does the "bad guy" actually win in a movie, book or television show? People want to root for the "little guy" against big corporations, organized crime and evil empires.

The entertainment industry constantly reinforces our innate desire to help the "little guy." Erin Brokovich, The Runaway Jury, and The Firm are just a few examples. This exposure certainly influences our perspectives when we serve as jurors.

Another factor that sometimes impacts "jury think" is the issue of timing. Television programs like CSI, Law and Order and Perry Mason have to compress time frames in order to tell the story within time limitations. This, along with the instant expectations of today's society often places an extra burden on litigators trying to help jurors understand timeline issues and to appreciate key elements of a case.

A distorted perspective of monetary awards in civil cases is also an issue that litigators must deal with in terms of jury deliberations. The news industry constantly reports huge awards. The huge awards are the ones that catch our attention and desensitize us to a more enlightened perspective of appropriate awards and punitive damages.

The well written and well presented arguments in court scenes also present a challenge to litigators. Television and movie viewers are familiar with professional actors making these presentations, thus raising expectations for litigators that are trained in the legal profession and not in communications or entertainment.

Therefore, the perceptive litigator recognizes these barriers to effectively presenting a case to jurors who are influenced by entertainment based on our legal system. He, or she, anticipates the expectations of jurors in this regard.

Jury research professionals provide valuable assistance to litigators in this area through mock trial deliberations and focus group work. When litigators can "see" these perceptions during the jury research process they are able to more effectively prepare and present their case.

Samples is president of RRS Research, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. He has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. He can be contacted at 304.343.7655.

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