In Crowds We Trust

Yaacov Apelbaum - In Crowds We Trust  
After Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post 14 Feb 1959 “Holdout”

Sometimes it’s hard to break from the daily routine of work, chores, and family. But life, with its endless twists and turns, has a way of forcing you to get off the bus and smell the roses. That’s what happed to me when I received a letter informing me that I was selected for jury service. I’d never been called for jury duty before so I asked a few colleagues at work about their experiences.

The responses I got back ranged from heartfelt sympathy to detailed advice as to how to go about dodging the process. Curious about the inner working of the windmills of justice and wanting to exercise my civic rights, I reported for service on the assigned date, all bright eyed and bushy tailed.

With my Juror’s ID card in hand, I went through security and was then directed to a reception counter in a large waiting hall. After a quick processing, I found a seat and waited while watching a movie about the “History of Criminal Justice” that was playing on the screen in the waiting room.

After about 11 loops of the intro movie and when it seemed that it wasn’t possible to squeeze one more person into the room, several court officials magically materialized on the floor. In the style of a southern auction, they grouped us into teams of about 100 each. Each group was assigned to a court officer and was marched to special service elevators that brought us to designated court rooms.

In the court room, the judge made a short introduction about what was ahead of us and then he began the jury elimination process.  First, he dismissed anyone who didn’t understand English. Next to go were non-citizens and  people with a felony conviction. After that, he released the candidates who were sick followed by small business owners who couldn’t afford to close their establishments for a prolonged time. After that came parents who were single care givers. Finally, the last ones to get off were the conscientious objectors.

After this filtering, our group had shrunk to about 50 candidates.  The judge read a list of 17 numbers, each corresponding to a juror ID.  Mine happened to be the 7th on the list.  The seventeen of us were then asked to move from the public seating area to the assigned jury section in front of the judge’s bench.

As soon as we were seated, the defense and prosecution began their questioning process.
“Does anyone here have direct family members in the police force?”
“Has anyone in this group ever been the victim of a violent crime?”
“Is any one of you an attorney?”

The questioning went on for about an hour and resulted in the dismissal and replacement of 4 of our original 17 team members (12 jurors and 5 alternates). Finally, the jury selection was complete. The judge appointed one of the jurors to be the “Foreman” and instructed us not to discuss the trial with unauthorized individuals, read about it in the news, visit the crime scene, or do our own case research. We were then allowed to go home for the day and told to report back the next day.

The following morning, the trial began.  Both sides made opening statements.  The prosecutor—in a confident voice—told us that this was an open and shut case. The defense—just as confident—insisted that the charges did not warrant the crime.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but in a nutshell, the case was about a gang related shootout that resulted in the death of one young individual and the injury of several others. 

As the witnesses got on the stand and testified, the facts about the case became murkier by the minute. In one twist, the injury victims of the shooing actually refused to identify the defendant who allegedly shot them from a distance of 6 feet, nor would they corroborate any of the prosecutor’s allegations, (possibly planning to reenact their own form of justice against the defendant out of court).  This went on day after day. We watched hours of video surveillance footage, examined the crime scene evidence, evaluated the weapons, and even got to examine some graphic autopsy photographs. 

After two and a half weeks of testimony and cross examinations, it was time for closing statements. The prosecution reaffirmed that this was a simple murder case and demanded a verdict of nothing less than First Degree Murder. The Defense argued that this was a classic case of self defense and that the unfortunate death was not pre-meditated and did not justify a First Degree Murder verdict.

After closing arguments, it was the judge’s turn. He gave us instructions regarding the definition of various terms like “reasonable doubt” and the degrees of murder and manslaughter. Then we were sent to the jury room for deliberation.

Yaacov Apelbaum-ColorzBy the end of the first day of deliberations, the majority of the jurors decided to go with “First Degree Murder”. I argued that I couldn’t find a willful and premeditated intent to justify First Degree murder verdict. I also pointed out that from all the facts presented to us, it was clear that the “victims” were armed, had a history of violence, were wearing their “colorz”, and from the video footage, it seemed that they were itching for a “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” style shootout.

Deliberations went on for 3 days. As time progressed, our secluded jury room became a pressure cooker and then eventually a madhouse. Emotions ran high. One juror got sick and had to be replaced by a standby. One female juror would spontaneously break into tears each time she spoke, and two other jurors—a man in his early twenties and an older gentleman in his late sixties—would engage in reoccurring screaming matches, calling each other “baby” and “grandpa”. This went on from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM, (with an hour of a sanity break for lunch). 

At the end of each deliberation day, we would vote and present our decision to the judge. Because the charge were deciding upon was of murder, we had to reach an unanimous decision. At the end of the second day, a court room police officer came into the jury room and confiscated all of our electronic devices (probably in an attempted to make everyone focus) and told us that we need to work harder on reaching a decision.

By noon of the third day of deliberations, we weren’t any closer to a decision. As it turned out, I disagreed with the majority. “Mr. Apelbaum, why can’t you be reasonable?”, “For haven’s sake, we are dealing with a confessed killer; what difference does it make if its First or Second Degree Murder?, We need to get this guy off the street for as long as possible”.  I would nod and say that I understood the speaker’s point of view, but could not agree with their decision because I still had a reasonable doubt. This in turn would start another round of crying, arguing, and emotionally charged negotiations. At 12:30, as we were getting ready to break for lunch, a plainclothes police officer (a detective who I perversely saw talking to the prosecutor) came into the jury room with several pizza pies. He told us that today, we will be dining in style—all expenses paid, complements of the prosecutor’s office. He then proceeded to deliver an uplifting oration about how ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. After the speech, he lingered for about 10 minutes and then he left.

In the end, we presented three consecutive votes illustrating that we were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The judge finally declared that we were a deadlocked jury and we were dismissed. We collected our bags and headed out of the building. The entrance to the building was swarming with reporters and TV cameras.  Not feeling up to the task of discussing the trial with anyone, I took the back door to the parking lot.

As I exited the building, I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and recognized one of the other jurors: it was “grandpa”, the man in his late sixties. 
“You mind if I walk with you?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said. 
We walked to the parking lot and spoke about the trial and the bitter disagreements we had during deliberation.

We reached his car. I shook his hand and wished him well and we parted ways.  As I was getting into my car, he pulled up next to me, rolled down his window and said:
“I’m glad that you didn’t vote for First Degree.”
I was surprised. I couldn’t understand what had changed. He had been the leader of the First Degree Murder verdict camp.
“Why do you say that? You felt so strongly about your opinion during the trial.” 
He thought about it for a few seconds and said:
“I don’t know. When we were locked up in that room, it seemed like the right decision. Now in retrospect, it doesn’t.”

I just nodded, smiled, and watched him drive away.

On the way home, I thought about his comment.  What was it that had initially made him so  certain about the verdict, but later caused him to change his mind? Was it peer pressure? An opportunity to assert leadership? Or maybe it was just plain demagoguery? One thing is certain though, the decision making process was a good illustration of just how wrong can 50 million Frenchmen be and how un-intelligent a swarm can get.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that crowds can find a correct answer to a question, even if they don’t know all the facts. But this is possible only if there is a correct answer to be found.  What about all the situations where there is no single best answer? What if there is no Global Maxima? It turns out that in these types of scenarios, group intelligence fails miserably because the individuals are unable to come up with an independent solution. Instead, they resort to forming sociopolitical alliances with other members, (based on age, gender, culture, heritage, etc.), or they emulate the opinions of socially dominant peers, and this leads to the formation of a majority decision that often has nothing to do with the truth.

This theory is supported by numerous historical examples of large crowds forming an opinion based on the affinity of some persuasive speaker on a balcony (often dressed in some dark decorated uniform and polished black boots to match). It’s an intriguing question to ponder: is it possible that the majority of verdicts returned in complex legal cases by juries are just a function of emulating charismatic (and often clueless!) peers in the group?

One thing is certain, though. If you get a jury notice, I strongly encourage you to serve. The experience will give you an intimate view into how our legal system works and some of its failures. Besides, you’ll also get the highest civil decoration available to any free citizen: the “Proof of Service” certificate.

As difficult and time consuming jury duty was, I was glad I had served. My personal takeaway from the experience was that no matter how vocal, eloquent, or passionate the other fellow jurors are about their opinions, the process is not about negotiating a group consensus or serving a higher good. It’s about you weighing the evidence and reaching a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.


© Copyright 2011 Yaacov Apelbaum. All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on “In Crowds We Trust

    • Hi Mark,

      It’s funny that you say that, that is exactly what I thought when I got to that chapter in the book.


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