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Jury Size

How Small is too Small? How many people does it take to form a jury? In keeping with British tradition, 12 has been the magic number. Then, in the case of Williams v. Florida (1970), the defendant was convicted of armed robbery by a six-person jury. He appealed the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost. As a result of this precedent, American courts are now permitted to cut trial costs by using six-person juries in cases that do not involve the death penalty. Juries consisting of fewer than six are not permitted.

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What is the impact of moving from 12 to six? The Supreme Court approached this question as a social psychologist would. It sought to determine whether the change would affect the decision-making process. Unfortunately, the Court mis- interpreted the available research so badly that Michael Saks (1974) concluded that it “would not win a passing grade in a high school psychology class”. Consider whether a reduction in size affects the ability of those in the voting minority to resist normative pressures. The Supreme Court did not think it would. Citing Asch’s (1956) conformity studies, the Court argued that an individual juror’s resis- tance depends on the proportional size of the majority. But is that true? Is the lone dissenter caught in a 5-to-1 bind as well insulated from the group norm as the minority in a 10-to-2 split? The Court argued that these 83%-to-17% divisions are psychologically identical. But wait. Asch’s research showed exactly the opposite—that the mere pres- ence of a single ally enables dissenters to keep their inde- pendence better than anything else.

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