Tag: rules of evidence

Clinical legal educationDiversityGenderJudicial listeningLitigation

Beyond formal rules of evidence

Last year the Wall Street Journal wrote about problems with sleeping jurors. Brooklyn law professor I. Bennett Capers’ new article Evidence Without Rules, forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review, points out a much more pervasive issue: all the information jurors take in when they are awake.

The rules of evidence strictly limit what jurors can consider. They are have been “understood, and continue to be understood, as all-seeing, all-encompassing gatekeepers, checking all of the information juries may hear or see for relevance and trustworthiness.” Capers shows this view to be inaccurate and incomplete:

The assumption is that the rules are all-encompassing, unbounded. But the truth is far different. To be sure, the Rules of Evidence place limits on some of the information jurors hear and see, such as witness testimony and exhibits, the type of information that is formally announced and introduced as evidence by lawyers. Other evidence, however, passes by evidentiary gatekeepers practically unseen and unnoticed. Jurors use it to decide who was right and who was wrong; who committed a crime and who did not.

It is this other evidence that “breeze[s] unchecked” past the gatekeeping function of the evidentiary rules. And, Capers argues, “[i]f the goal of evidence law is ‘that truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined,’ then that objective is frustrated when outputs turn on improper and unchecked inputs.”

He gives three major examples pertaining to all the players in the courtroom—parties, witnesses, attorneys, and others:

  1. Their dress
  2. Their demeanor
  3. Their race

First, dress—for example, glasses, which can be used for a “nerd defense” but may also make white-collar defendants look more guilty. As to the role of glasses, the article left me actually speechless with a jury consultant’s advice: “savvy lawyers should spray a defendant’s glasses with PAM cooking spray so that the jury cannot see the person’s eyes, at least when the lawyer fears the defendant might come across as ‘shifty-eyed.’”

Second, demeanor—Capers points out that the lawyer can use nonverbal behavior to supplement or tear down testimony. It was this aspect of the paper that seemed most connected to the topics here on this blog. A lawyer’s demeanor can serve as a kind of “performative listening” that doesn’t just elicit testimony but gives some kind of statement in its own right:

Consider the lawyer who drums her fingers on the table while a witness testifies on the stand, or rolls her eyes or raises a skeptical eyebrow. Or the lawyer who quietly nods along at a certain point in a witness’s testimony. . . . They are in effect vouching for witnesses, or in the case of opposing witnesses, implying a witness is unworthy of belief. They are offering the equivalent of opinion testimony without themselves swearing an oath or taking the stand.

The way the lawyers sit aligned with their client or put a protective arm around the client is itself a form of opinion evidence, Capers argues—unacknowledged evidence that would violate Rule 404(a) if it were considered “evidence” in the first place.

Third, race—which connects with demeanor evidence but is of course much broader. As to demeanor, which has proven crucial in death-penalty juries’ deliberations, the impact of race makes jurors worse at reading faces: “Several studies have found that how jurors interpret facial expressions depends on the race of the juror and the race of the defendant; not only do we have trouble with cross-racial identification; we have trouble with cross-racial identifications of remorse.”

The impact of race also makes jurors worse at remembering the facts fairly:

[In one study,] participants invented aggressiveness when the actor was black, [but] actually failed to remember evidence of aggressiveness when the actor was white. In short, it is not only in cases involving minority defendants where race matters. Race also matters in cases involving white defendants, whom jurors are more likely to view as presumptively innocent, and cases involving white witnesses whom jurors deem presumptively credible.

Beyond these three factors explored in the articles, there is, of course, sexism such as jurors’ bias toward male experts as more authoritative, bias toward people with families, bias against the use of an interpreter, and male bias against overweight women. “Outsider accents” are viewed as less credible, whereas neutral and especially British accents gain extra credibility.

The question Capers struggles with is what to do about all of this. Given the almost impossible bar of overturning a jury verdict, even on evidentiary issues formally recognized as evidence, the basic effect is “What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.”

And he points out that existing instructions may exacerbate the problem. Telling jurors to decide based on what they “saw and heard in court” may “giv[e] them tacit approval to consider anything they hear or see—including the dress of witnesses, or the presence of supporting family members, or the defendant’s demeanor even if he does not testify—so long as they do not consider as evidence anything the court explicitly prohibited, such as the questions of lawyers.”

Capers goes on to suggest a stronger admonitory instruction, phrased in concrete, plain language. He also suggests providing jurors with an evidentiary checklist of the witnesses and the documents. Capers’ suggestion here fits well within insights from cognitive science. For example, Daniel Kahnemann coined the phrase “WYSIATI”: What You See Is All There Is. Under WYSIATI, people rely heavily on affirmative information in front of them. Thus, an affirmative list of what the evidence actually is could direct attention toward the evidence actually presented and away from the natural tendency to fill gaps using other cognitive shortcuts.

Capers’ most radical suggestion is to redefine the scope of evidence itself. Under his proposed definition, evidence would include “anything that may come to a juror’s attention and factor into a juror’s deliberation.” The implications of such a definition seem vague at times. For example, he says that a rape victim’s clothing might trigger a 403 issue with the risk of unfair prejudice. But there is an aspect of personal autonomy in how people dress for court; if clothing could be prejudicial enough to trigger 403 then could it somehow come within the court’s discretion to order someone to, say, put on a sweater or take off a sweater? This reminded me of the incident from a couple of years ago where a weather reporter was asked to cover up, on air. And what should a judge do with flamboyant courtroom observers in high-profile cases, for example the Tex McIver trial that just wrapped up in Atlanta:

Capers answers most such questions by relying on detailed jury instructions. Footnote 153 in the article cites scholarship that instructions are not futile and do make a difference, especially when repeated and explained clearly.

I appreciated the realism at the end of his article, acknowledging a possible counter-argument: Why does any of this matter? Why shouldn’t jurors consider all that stuff, as they always have? Drawing on Critical Race Theory and his own professional and personal experiences, Capers out that dress, demeanor, race, and all those other factors are not neutral:

Who benefits from the status quo when we pretend dress does not matter, or demeanor does not matter, or the presence of family members does not matter, or language ability or up-speak or race or gender does not matter? Who benefits? And who does not?