Jurors’ Pre-existing Knowledge of Burdens of Proof

Jurors’ Pre-existing Knowledge of Burdens of Proof

Due to the proliferation of television crime dramas and other media characterizations of the legal
arena, most of today’s jurors are familiar with the burden of proof in criminal cases. Magnus Research Consultants has worked on numerous criminal matters; overall, we have observed our mock jurors and other research participants taking the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof seriously during their deliberations. In addition, it appears most of the jury eligible citizens who participate in our mock trials, surveys, and focus groups have a reasonably good understanding of the reasonable doubt standard and its implications for both the prosecution and defendant in criminal cases.

On the other hand, the majority of mock jurors and other research participants do not understand there is a different standard of proof in criminal and civil cases; many of them believe the burden of proof in civil cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This erroneous belief creates considerable confusion during their deliberations. It occurs despite the fact they have been instructed on how to apply the “greater weight of the evidence” standard prior to their deliberations and are provided with the jury instructions during their deliberations. Their confusion stems from the fact that it is difficult for most people to put aside long term beliefs and opinions when they are provided with information that disconfirms their (erroneous) ways of viewing the world. The consequence of jurors’ failure to understand the standard of proof in civil cases and the resulting misapplication of the standard of proof in criminal cases often leads them to hold the plaintiff in a civil case to a much higher standard than is required. In some instances, the jurors also improperly believe the defendant has to prove his/her/its case, in much the same way as the plaintiff must prove a case. Magnus has witnessed numerous mock jurors spending a substantial amount of time discussing the plaintiff’s burden of proof during their deliberations. And, although these mistakes can be corrected when they are made within the context of a mock trial or other type of jury research, they go unnoticed and, therefore, uncorrected, in the deliberations on actual trials because there is no one other than the members of the jury who is present during their deliberations. Given the close approximation of the composition of mock jurors to the actual jurors on the cases in which we are involved, it is with certainty that we believe trial jurors become as confused about the standard of proof as the mock jurors.

Attorneys who try civil cases, particularly on behalf of plaintiffs, are cautioned to instruct the jury on the greater weight of the evidence as well as to caution them about the misapplication of the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. Failure to provide a detailed explanation regarding the burden of proof is likely to create confusion during the deliberations and lead to an unanticipated outcome in the trial.

Contact Magnus to schedule your next mock trial, on a civil or criminal case.