Cognitive Jury Duty


Memoir by
William H. Stoddard


November 2001


Earlier this year I was called in for jury duty. I reported to the courthouse in downtown San Diego, and that afternoon I was sent to one of the courtrooms for a trial.

The case turned out to be criminal rather than civil. Specifically, it was a drug offense: two men charged with selling drugs to an undercover police officer. This was a problem for me, as the law in question clashed with my libertarian convictions on the subject. Fortunately, I was an alternate juror and had time to think about the question while the prosecutor and the defender worked their way through the original panel and seated me.

Eventually my turn came to answer the standard questions, and I gave the required information — and concluded by saying that I doubted my ability to render impartial judgment in this case. The judge naturally asked me to explain further.

What I said was roughly this:

Your honor, I understand that it is my legal duty, as a juror, to judge only the facts of the case, without considering whether I agree with the law or not. However, that puts me in conflict, because I don't believe the state has any legitimate interest in regulating the use or sale of drugs. I can't help feeling that if I return a guilty verdict, I will be helping to commit a wrongful act.

There's a process called cognitive dissonance that has been shown to take place when people are in emotional conflict.

At this point I noticed that the prosecuting attorney looked as if he were trying to suppress a grin. I went on:

People experiencing cognitive dissonance tend to misperceive a situation in a way that makes it easier to avoid the conflict. For example, I might not give full credence to the testimony of the police witnesses, or I might not be able to judge what should count as reasonable doubt. I will try to carry out my legal duty, but I'm not sure of my own reliability.

The court recessed shortly afterward, and a few minutes later one of the bailiffs came out and told me, "Mr. Stoddard, you can go."

I left, with considerable relief.


© 2001 William H. Stoddard

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