By Dr. Broda-Bahm:
When I give the orientation at the beginning of a mock trial, I'll typically say something like, "Because this is a shortened version of a trial, you aren't going to be able to hear everything. We will boil it down, summarize, and avoid some of the details, and we do that only for the purposes of time. We know it can be frustrating when there are things you're not hearing, but what we want is your reaction to what you are hearing." Though it is incomplete, that explanation is probably more comprehensive than what jurors hear in court. When evidence is excluded, they just won't hear about it. Or the judge will sustain an objection, disallow a juror question, and the trial will simply move on. The law assumes that the jury simply focuses as directed on what they are told, and won't be distracted by what they're not told. A recent example from Seattle, however, reminds us that this isn't always the case.
Last year, Che Taylor was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers. The 46-year-old African-American, based on officer testimony, appeared to be reaching for a gun and both officers opened fire with a rifle and a shot gun. The King County case was decided, not through a conventional trial, but with an inquest using a jury to determine whether the officer's use of deadly force was justifiable or not. After eight days of testimony and two days of deliberations, the inquest jury returned answers to fifty-five fact-based questions, and then the prosecutor announced that charges would not be filed against the two officers. To one juror, however, that answer was deeply unsatisfying based on a lack of answers during the inquest. The juror, Rainier Beach dance teacher Jenna Mitchell, went public with her concerns in a special to The Seattle Times. "Based on the number of questions that went unanswered during the inquest," she wrote, "our answers may have been different and therefore resulted in a different outcome." Because it is still relatively rare to hear from the jurors themselves, I think it is important to pay attention to those views. This post will look at some of Ms. Mitchell's reasons and what they say more generally about the concerns jurors are likely to have when there are unanswered questions.