Monday, June 19, 2017

LA Times Headline Jumps To Conclusions: "Cosby case deadlock reflects our cultural split" (And Side Note On Google Search Problem)

Does that deadlocked jury really reflect our cultural split?

Maybe, but since we don't know what happened in the jury room  there is so far no basis for that conclusion.  If it said, "Crosby case" (without the deadlock), I wouldn't have reacted like this.   I think it's worth calling out the headline writer and to some extent the reporter on this.  It seems a clear case of using this story as a pretext to discuss what the reporter was thinking about the case.  Not what the facts showed.  Because the only facts we have about the deadlock is that it deadlocked.

[NOTE:  I haven't figured out how to get the link to the article when I read print facsimile version of the LA Times.  So after I finished this post, I went back to get the link.  It gave me a different online version of the article which has a completely different headline.  Had I read this headline, I never would have written this post:
"One night, two stories: In the Bill Cosby saga of sex, race, celebrity and alleged assault, even the jury couldn't agree on the truth"
Online headline writers have more space to use than print headline writers.  But my point about the print headline is still valid.  I'm glad to see the online headline writer was more careful.  And since you'll get the other headline at the link, here's a screenshot of what I saw first:]

Here's the beginning of the article:

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — The dozen jurors in the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial spanned a diverse demographic range: white men in their 20s and 30s, middle-aged African Americans, elderly white women.
With that diversity also came deadlock. On its sixth day of deliberations, the jury found itself unable to render a verdict — like so much of this country, unable to find consensus on charged questions of race, age, power and gender."
I'd also note that reporters are not usually the ones who write the headlines, though this sentence seems to give the headline writer the needed prompt:
"The jurors did not speak with reporters, but their inability to reach a verdict, after more than 100 hours of testimony and deliberations in this suburban Philadelphia courtroom, brought home how divided opinions are about Cosby — and about a lot more."
Before we can reach this conclusion, we need to know a few things:

1.   How many jurors vote for guilty and how many for not-guilty?
  • If only one or two jurors held out, then their deadlock doesn't represent "our cultural split."  11 -1 or 10-2 are huge majorities.  I was on a jury where one woman refused to find the young woman defendant guilty of drunk driving because, as she told us, it could have been her daughter.  It's easy to imagine a juror who's had sex with a drunk friend identifying himself in the same situation, using the same sort of personal logic to say 'not guilty.'  
  • If more jurors held out, and the debate focused on whether the plaintiff consented and/or whether Cosby was the victim of race discrimination, then perhaps the headline would be justified. Or not.   And if the debate was about reasonable doubt  (and the article says the deadlocked jury asked for a definition of that term) then it really might have been just that and not particularly reflective of cultural splits.  I'm assuming, for example, that the number of other accusers, who say they were assaulted the same way and who have not filed law suits, was not allowed into the trial.

There are lots of reasons juries deadlock.  One juror may so irritate another juror that the second just won't go along with whatever the first one decides.  Or a juror feels strongly that government is screwing over people.  We don't even know, in this case, whether the majority was for not-guilty or guilty.

[A Note On Juries.    I did try to find studies on why juries deadlock.  This revealed a problem with google's search algorithm - the first ten pages were almost completely about the Cosby case, nothing generic about deadlocked juries, and nothing about why they deadlock.

I did find one book The Jury Under Fire: Myth, Controversy, and Reform  by Brian H. Bornstein and Edie Greene.  Google got me to page 73 which discussed how jury size (12 or 6 jurors) affected deliberations and how the unanimous vote rule (as opposed to using a majority vote) affected decisions.  It also mentioned that only two states - Oregon and Louisiana have majority rule, but they require at 10 jurors in some kinds of cases and 11 in murder cases.  It also cited some numbers:  2% of federal trials and 4-5% of state trials result in hung juries.  There were also some caveats because most studies of juries are done on mock juries not real ones.]

[A Further Note on Google and Hung Juries.  Before posting this, I decided to try a different browser.  I used Bing.  And bingo (sorry), I got better results than with google.  Here are the reasons for hung juries from one study

This covers only 46 cases and presumably none with the kind of celebrity buzz as the Cosby trial.  I'd say 'cultural split' might fit in 'dysfunctional process'  or 'unknown.'

A study by the National Center for State Courts found:
"In examining the data, researchers found one or more of the following traits consistent in a hung jury compared to one that reaches a verdict:
• weak evidence
• problematic deliberations
• jurors’ perception of unfairness"
"Cultural split' might fit into the last two categories.  We just don't know what happened.

My point?  Even with reputable media, we need to be ever watchful that the facts support the conclusions.   Here I think the story reflects what the reporter thinks about the case, not about the hung jury.  When the article was posted we didn't know any more about the jury than it was deadlocked.  (I couch it that way, because I don't know if any of the jurors have said anything publicly as I write this.   Using Google and  Bing I can't find anything about a juror talking to anyone about the details of the split or the issues that caused the split.)


  1. My Firefox browser went to several articles about hung juries. No mention of Cosby until the second page. I did not copy/paste as I am not sure of your rules.

    1. Thanks Mike. The rules are to prevent abusive comments and spam. So you can cut and paste away if it adds to the discussion. I am trying to get people to learn just enough html code to add links, but I know most people don't want to spend more time to do that. But people are more likely to try the link if they can just click on it.

  2. Jurys must be odd beasts judging from the bifurcated trial I was on 50 years ago in California: savage murder with witnesses. It took us 3 minutes to decide guilt (but were told by the judge to "deliberate" for 3 hours 'cause it looked like we weren't being thoughtful) -- we were then sequestered. It took us three days to give a unanimous verdict of death.

    Two holdouts for life: the 21-year-old foreman who wanted us to really consider what we were doing -- and a woman who finally told me she had a son in jail and couldn't do that to another young man, but after the third day voted death because she just wanted to go home (she was constipated).

    (A long internet search can find no trace of Dorman Fred Talbot Jr. in the current penetentiary system; he must have died on death row. He would have been about 75 in 2017.)


      Talbot is not listed on death row as of this month.

    2. I saw a similar list, but thanks. I just figure he is dead.

      When our foreman delivered the death verdict, Talbot leaned his chair back and smiled. His lawyer later told us that Talbot wanted to be found guilty and sent to death row: "Then I'll be a somebody," he said.

      It was quite an experience: a two month trial. The prosecution lawyer who looked like a tough Perry Mason, at one point, leaned on the jury's dividing wall, looked up and down at all the members and said quietly..."Dorman Fred showed not one ... SHRED!! ... of remorse." Enough to make some of us jump.

  3. NYTimes said yesterday that the judge asked (not ordered) jurors not to talk about the verdict. Also that observers inferred from the questions the jury asked that it was a one-or-two-holdout situation.

    I agree with your complaints. Too often journalists and those with hobbyhorses to ride are happy for a news peg to hang their favorite rant on, whether or not the peg actually supports the argument. (How many op ed pieces start out "yesterday's shocking events are eerily similar to a shocking event in Trondheim 150 years ago...." and it turns out the author has written a book about Trondheim?)


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