The role of a juror in any criminal case, and especially in a case where the penalty is death or life without parole is in play, has a solemn, uncompromising duty to impartially examine all the evidence presented by the prosecution and make a judgment of whether or not the evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to find a defendant guilty of the charged offense.
Some cases are factually complex requiring a great deal patience and attention to fully grasp and to render a verdict about guilt or innocence. Other cases are emotionally charged, usually driven by sensationalized media coverage prior to the trial.
In these cases, a juror must have the intellectual fortitude and moral courage to separate their real-life biases and perceptions from their duty to render a fair and impartial verdict based solely on the evidence, or the lack thereof, presented at the trial.
The recent double murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, which began on January 25, 2023, and ended on March 2, 2023, with a guilty verdict, was one of the most sensational criminal trials since the 1995 double murder trial of former NFL football great O.J. Simpson. Unlike Simpson, who stood trial in a large Los Angeles metropolitan courtroom, Murdaugh stood trial for the murder of his wife and son in a small Colleton County courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina.
The jury in the Simpson trial was comprised of 8 African Americans, two Hispanics, 1 Caucasian, and 1 Native American while the jury in the Murdaugh case was comprised of 10 Whites and 2 Black Americans. It took the jury less than four hours to reach a not guilty verdict in the Simpson case, while it took the jury less than three hours to reach a guilty verdict in the Murdaugh case.
Just before jury deliberations got underway, one juror was removed from the jury because she had expressed to friends in several conversations that he believed Murdaugh was “not guilty.”
Once the jury deliberations got underway, the initial vote was 9 jurors in favor of a guilty verdict, two in favor of a not guilty verdict, and one not sure about a verdict.
It took the nine jurors less than three hours to either convince or browbeat the three holdout jurors to reach a unanimous guilty verdict.
In the 1957 classic movie “12 Angry Men,” the movie’s lead character, Juror 8, told the court, “Well there were 11 votes for guilty. It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”
The lone dissenter in jury votes is sometimes referred to as the “voice of reason” and is generally looked upon with favor in American culture. It takes courage to dissent.
The two “not guilty” and the one “not sure” Murdaugh jurors did not have the commitment to stand with their dissent. They either were convinced by the arguments of their fellow jurors or caved under the pressure of unfriendly glares.
Admittedly, such pressure is indeed strong. It can quickly overwhelm initial courage.
As Jason D. Reichett, a former U.S. Justice Department official, said in his article “Standing Alone: Conformity, Coercion, and Protection of the Holdout Juror” published in 2007 in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform:
“The value placed on dissent, however, is juxtaposed against a social force that is just as strong, if not stronger: the pressure to conform. The natural desire to fit in, to avoid the stigma of being labeled an outsider or outcast, and the impetus to go along with the majority as a means of earning social acceptance all conspire to suppress the frequency and forcefulness of dissent. One of the most controlled environments for analyzing the expression of and interaction between conformity and dissent is in the examination of the decision-making process of a trial jury. The federal criminal trial system and every state, with the exception of two, require unanimous verdicts for conviction or acquittal in felony trials. The tension between conformity and dissent, coupled with the unanimity requirement, result in the regular, although infrequent, occurrence of deadlocked juries that are unable to reach a decision on guilt or innocence. From a societal and historical standpoint, we have come to accept that a certain number of criminal trials will seat juries that, for one reason or another, are unable to reach a verdict in a particular case. It is certainly not unexpected that from time to time, twelve strangers who hear conflicting evidence and argument will be unable to reach a unanimous opinion on the defendant’s guilt or innocence.”
We strongly suspect that it was the need to conform that pressured the three holdout jurors in the Murdaugh trial to quickly succumb to the jury room pressure to vote guilty. Jurors who have spoken to the media following the guilty verdict claim that it was Paul Murdaugh’s cellphone video placing Alex Murdaugh at the family’s dog kennel shortly before the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh that convinced the holdouts to abandon their dissent and conform to the will of the majority vote. That may be true. Or, it could have been Murdaugh’s own conflicting testimony or admission he had lied about several aspects of the case that sealed his fate.
Juror dynamics are historically difficult to understand and predict. It is interesting that the holdout jurors had seen the kennel video during the trial. They nonetheless reached a preliminary “not guilty” and “not sure” decision about that evidence going into jury deliberations.
The bottom line: there was no Juror 8 on the Alex Murdaugh jury, and many times there isn’t…