9 min read

Trial by Jury, Part 3: The Verdict

How a jury reaches a verdict
Trial by Jury, Part 3: The Verdict
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash


  • This post is the final part of a series on my experience serving as the foreperson for a jury trial. See also "Part 1: Jury Selection" and "Part 2: The Trial".
  • It takes a ton of evidence to convince a jury. Today's jurors are skeptical by default after decades of reporting on prosecutorial misconduct and overzealousness.
  • If you end up serving as the foreperson: set the tone, structure the discussion, and ensure all voices are heard.
  • Edge-case outcomes for a jury trial include: mistrial, jury nullification, and a judgement notwithstanding the verdict.
  • Serve on a jury if you're able to do so! It enables a fundamental right for others and allows those facing harder life circumstances to focus on their health and families.

Instructions to the Jury

With all the evidence and arguments having now been heard, it's time to deliberate. First, the alternates are excused and sent home, and recalled only if a primary juror is suddenly unavailable during deliberations.

Next, the judge provides instructions on how deliberations should proceed and what not to do. Some hilarious examples included:

  • You may not flip a coin to decide the verdict.
  • If you are asked for a number, you may not simply take the average of everyone's opinion.

You would think I'm joking, but these were included in the actual instructions. Chesterton's Fence, much?

More importantly, you will again be exhorted to not conduct any outside research and to set aside any specialized training or knowledge. This was something I did not understand the motivation for before I served on a jury. Now it's clear to me why this restriction is in-place. Requiring all evidence to go through formal review by the judge and attorneys is designed to minimize the chance that it's biased or outright false.

This point is key, so I'll pull it out for emphasis: a randomly-selected jury, given the same set of evidence and instructions on the law, should reach a similar conclusion to another randomly-selected jury. It should not in principle matter whether that jury happened to have a doctor, lawyer, or engineer on it, or was all of one demographic group. In practice, legal systems are human systems, which is why the jury selection process exists, and why that process is the focus of so much reform effort.

Don't worry about remembering the details of every instruction. Throughout the case, the judge will have been working (in consultation with the attorneys) on written instructions and verdict forms to provide to the jury. You'll enter the deliberation room with these and a binder containing all the exhibits presented.

Jury Deliberations

A bailiff will escort the jury to a separate room for deliberations. You set your own schedule as a group for when to start, take breaks, and end the day, but everyone must be present for discussion.

Now that you're (mostly literally) locked in a room with 11 strangers and an emotionally charged set of questions to answer, what do you do?

Well, hold an election first, of course! The jury has to begin by electing a foreperson (known as a "presiding juror" in some states). This foreperson runs the show for deliberations, keeping the group on-track to reach a verdict.

In my case, I think I got elected because I drew out a sequence diagram to track a timeline of the key players and their interactions. 🤓

Once I was the foreperson, I began by setting the tone, for which I had some speakers' notes:

Take this seriously:

  • We have a solemn duty to get this right.
  • What happens here goes into the public record.
  • What would you want if you were an involved party here?

Listen to reason, not feelings:

  • Our duty is to determine the facts according to the law.
  • Whether you personally like or dislike someone is irrelevant.
  • That doesn't mean becoming robots. We often have to consider what a reasonable person in that situation would do or conclude. And we need empathy for that.
  • What it does mean is being as objective and neutral as we can.
  • The burden of proof here is {criminal: beyond a reasonable doubt | civil: more reasonable than not}. Keep that evidential threshold in mind.

Disagree respectfully and productively:

  • Not everyone enjoys debate.
  • But it's crucial that we disagree well in here.
  • If you do enjoy debate: share the airtime.
  • If you don't: practice speaking up.
  • We will have a better outcome by hearing from everyone.
  • We will need to all assume good faith and good intentions.
  • We are all here for the same reason: to determine the facts according to the law.

Can we all commit to these norms and expectations?

Then I passed out verdict forms and instructions (discovering missing ones in the process), asked for a timekeeper, and structured the meeting by each of the questions to be answered.

With the set-up done, we followed the advice of the lawyers in our group [lawyer-jurors], and dove in following the IRAC method:

  • Issue: what is the question before us?
  • Rule: what are the relevant statutes/regulations/precedents here (as instructed by the judge)?
  • Application: how do those rules apply (or not) to this situation?
  • Conclusion: what are the answers we've reached?

A Juror's Toolbox

One of my favorite mental models is the toolbox: what are the sets of tools and techniques available for problem-solving in a given context?

As a juror, you can:

  • Cross-check your memory and interpretation with that of others'
  • Annotate the contents of the evidence binder
  • Review and discuss your notes taken during the trial. These notes are left in the courtroom at the end of each day and destroyed after the trial concludes.
  • Ask the court reporter to read back a select portion of witness testimony
  • Submit questions to the judge to clarify technical legal questions or to request logistical support. This is how we resolved the missing verdict forms.
  • Whiteboard!

Again, you cannot:

  • Consult any external reference, including dictionaries, and definitely not the Internet
  • Discuss the case with anyone outside of the jury

Overall, I generally tried to keep the group focused on the legal questions and making sure every voice was heard, for which structuring everything really helped. I think I could have done a better job of disagreeing when I thought devil's advocate arguments were irrelevant or emotionally biased. Ultimately, I felt good about the correctness of our conclusions, especially given the strong skepticism we had to resolve as a group. The impact of popular culture reporting around how the legal system goes awry had definitely had an impact.

Reaching a Verdict

In my trial, we had multiple questions to answer. We kept rough-draft verdict forms throughout, taking informal votes as we wrapped up discussing each issue.

(Pro-tip: number the verdict forms to make it easy to refer to each one!)

Then at the end, we took formal votes on each question by show of hands, and I signed the final verdict forms. I then phoned the courtroom control room to ask for the bailiff and we returned to the courtroom. Now it's the moment of high legal drama you've been waiting for:

Judge: "Who among you is the foreperson?"

Me: "That would be me, Your Honor."

Judge: "Has the jury reached a verdict?"

Me: "We have, Your Honor."

Judge: "Thank you, please give the verdict forms to the bailiff."

Me: (Dang it, I was so ready to read out the verdict!)

Things turn out to be less dramatic in practice, as you don't want a layperson juror to misread the verdict. Instead, you provide the verdict forms to the bailiff, who gives them to the court clerk, who gives them to the judge for a quick review for completeness. Then the judge gives them back to the court clerk for the verdict to be read into the record.

Now, the attorneys usually have a right to ask the jury to be "polled" by the judge. This means the judge will individually ask each juror, "Is this your verdict?" It verifies that the proper threshold was met for the verdict.

(Pro-tip: be ready to be polled! Keep the draft verdict forms handy, so that you can remember how you voted for each question.)

Once the verdict is confirmed, the clerk takes out the heaviest duty stamp I've ever seen in my life and stamps the current date onto the verdict forms, officially entering them into the record alongside what the court reporter transcribed.

Lastly, the judge gives parting instructions to the jury, releasing us from our court order to not discuss or research the case. You're now as free as anyone else with regards to the case. You can even talk to the involved attorneys, but have no obligation to do so.

To my surprise, the attorneys then thanked us for our service and asked for feedback from anyone who would like to remain for a few minutes. This is up to the discretion of the court to allow, and we had no obligation to engage. I wasn't expecting this at the time, but in retrospect it makes sense: this was their best chance to establish a feedback loop on their performance.

Most of my group left, but a few of us (including me) hung back to talk to counsel for both sides. I'm glad I did! It was a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek, and a chance to convey honest feedback.

Edge Cases

Not all trials end cleanly. There are a few edge case outcomes worth noting as possibilities:

First, the judge may declare a mistrial if serious issues prevent a fair and impartial verdict from being reached. For example: too many jurors get sick from the next pandemic; a juror lied during voir dire and is actually related to counsel from one side; a key witness becomes unavailable; and so on. The specifics vary by state; here's North Carolina as an example. If a mistrial is declared, a replacement trial may follow [null-result].

A mistrial cause that is common-enough to have its own name is a hung jury (aka a "deadlocked jury"), which is when the judge decides a jury is unlikely to be able to reach a verdict with the required threshold. For criminal trials, the jurors must agree unanimously on the verdict. For civil trials, the threshold varies by state but is usually 3/4 of the jury.

Next, you may have heard of jury nullification—don't do this! This is when a jury believes a defendant is guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) but returns a verdict of "Not guilty" because, e.g., they believe the law is unjust. Because of the 5th Amendment's right to protection against double jeopardy (you cannot be tried for the same crime more than once, modulo procedural issues) and the lack of penalties for rogue jurors, this protects the defendant against future prosecution for that alleged crime [double-case]. I strongly recommend against this because it violates the meta-principle of consistency that underlies the rule of law. If you believe a law is unjust, change it through the legislative process, not a rogue vote. The same principle applies for why faithless electors in the Electoral College are a bad idea. You degrade the integrity of the system as a whole when you go rogue.

Lastly, you could have the inverse: a judgement notwithstanding the verdict. This is when a judge overturns a "Guilty" verdict (they cannot overturn a "Not guilty" one, as noted above). This is exceptionally rare and reserved for when a judge believes a jury is absolutely out-of-it and believed a defendant "Guilty" on laughably bad evidence.

Closing Thoughts

A jury trial is where the rubber meets the road for the law. Our current legal system turned out to be much better than I expected. We have created institutions to set aside our personal preferences and prejudices, and to set and enforce consistent standards as a society. That is a goal worth pursuing.

And as much as my fellow software engineers sometimes bloviate, you don’t actually want rule-by-code. It's impossible to fully specify every combination and edge-case. You want—indeed need—humans in the loop [agi-law].

There is beauty in us striving to do better collectively, and I am so glad to have been able to do my part.

Read the rest of the series: "Part 1: Jury Selection", "Part 2: The Trial" , "Part 3: The Verdict".


[lawyer-jurors]: Yes, you can have lawyers and even judges as part of a jury. The attorneys in my group were model jurors, abstaining from applying specific legal knowledge, but highly structured and clear-headed in their reasoning. They helped sway the group away from emotional reactions and towards applying the law as-instructed.

[null-result]: Mistrials are a "null" result that does not count against the Double Jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment. In software engineering terms, this rule is an at-most-once constraint where null/nil results do not increment the counter.

[double-case]: Double jeopardy protections may or may not apply to civil cases and sanctions. Someone could be acquitted in a criminal case but still face a civil lawsuit and administrative fines, for example. Consult a local lawyer if this is a concern!

[agi-law]: How our legal systems—and honestly, society at large—should evolve once we have artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a very open question. I recommend the blog Planned Obsolescence as a starting point for further thinking.