Growing role of emotion in jury verdicts

Peterson case shows how jurors can make decisions, even about death penalty, based on personal demeanor.

Since they reached their decision earlier this week to recommend the death penalty for Scott Peterson, the jurors in his trial have made it clear that there was no single piece of evidence that made up their minds - either to convict or to condemn him to death. Yet, time and again, several have returned to one crucial point: Throughout the trial, Peterson never showed the slightest hint of grief, remorse, or sadness.

They are comments that set the legal world on edge. To be sure, juries have always watched defendants during their trials - reading meaning into every tic and tantrum. But with so little solid evidence in the Peterson case, his demeanor seems to have played an unusually prominent role in the jury's decisions.

Although the high profile of the Peterson trial makes it unique in many ways, legal experts worry that the emphasis on emotion here reveals a more fundamental shift in juries nationwide, as Americans increasingly weigh "Law and Order" acts of contrition as much as actual evidence.

"The drama of the courtroom and how you evaluate it is important," says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has been following the trial. "That has always been a part of the equation, but I've never heard it articulated as clearly as by this jury.... This case highlights it."

Apparently, it was particularly true during the penalty phase of the case, which ended on Monday with the jury's decision to recommend death for Peterson for the murder of his wife and unborn child. In a press conference following the trial, a panel of three jurors mentioned Peterson's stoicism during the proceedings, suggesting that it would be unnatural for an innocent man to behave that way. "The witnesses [for Peterson during the penalty phase] meant nothing because the jury was looking at Peterson," says Professor Levenson.

In other ways, Monday's decision contrasts with recent trends. Although support for the death penalty has remained strong across much of America, revelations of scores of false convictions - some of them on death row - have softened the harsh stance of the tough-on-crime 1990s. Death penalty sentences are declining nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). "Lawyers around the country are securing life sentences in very difficult cases," says Richard Dieter of the DPIC, which opposes the death penalty. "Jurors are aware that the death penalty is full of problems."

To some analysts like Mr. Dieter, the case is an anomaly because of the media circus surrounding it. "It distorts the process that would naturally occur," he says.

Yet others see lessons in the trial - perhaps even a follow-on effect for juries in other high-profile proceedings. "These jurors received quite a bit of applause, literally, for what they did, and jurors like to be approved of," says Levenson. "No jury wants to be vilified like the O.J. [Simpson] jury."

The jury's actions, however, leave many questions ahead - for lawyers appealing the case and experts looking into its meaning. Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, has seen juries judge seemingly remorseless young defendants "whose way of dealing with the world is to have bravado." "It's a problem," he says.

But for him, it was even more obvious in the Peterson trial, and the attention the case generated could give it disproportionate weight in some legal corners. "I can see defense attorneys scrambling more than ever before to coach clients to show emotions, even when they don't feel it," he says.

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