Jury Selection and Social Science: A Historical Snapshot of 4 Cases


Attorney’s are experts in litigation, trained in nuances of complex law and judiciary process. Psychologists and Social Scientists are experts in human behavior and decision making. Applying social science methodologies to assist in selecting juries is known as scientific jury selection.  Cases such as the “Harrisburg Seven”, Wounded Knee Trial, the Trial of Joan Little (Hans & Vidmar, 1982), and the IBM Antitrust Case; established using social science consultation and scientific jury selection as pivotal in high-stakes cases.

  1. The advent of social science methods to select jurors first was recorded in the early 1970s and the trial of the “Harrisburg Seven” (Hans & Vidmar, 1982; Strier, 1999; Wrightsman, 2001).  Seven defendants were charged with conspiracy to pillage draft boards and kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The defense team hired sociologist Jay Schulman, who subsequently administered a rigorous community survey to create profiles of desirable and undesirable jurors. The trial resulted in a hung jury and promoted the idea that the social sciences were very useful in litigation.
  2. Jay Schulman continued his jury selection consultation with the Wounded Knee trials. The Wounded Knee Incident started in 1973 when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Oglala Lakota commandeered the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The activists accused the United States government in failing to fulfill treaties with the American Indians and demanded a reopening of the treaty negotiation process. The town was held for 71 days, prompting the government to prosecute the Native Americans for occupying federal land and numerous other charges. Schulman was brought onto the defense team and found through community surveys that three quarters of citizens followed the case in the media. During voir dire, only 40% of potential jurors actually admitted to being acquainted with the case. This prompted the defense to conduct individual interviews with jurors, revealing they intentionally lied so they would be selected for this high profile media case. In a related state criminal case, Schulman conducted a state-wide survey gathering South Dakota citizens’ perspectives on the Wounded Knee incident which he presented to the judge, ultimately prompting the judge to dismiss the case based on an inability to receive a fair jury in any county in South Dakota. (LIeberman & Sales, 2007).
  3. In the 1974 Joan Little Case, an African-American woman was put on trial  for the murder of a white prison guard at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina. Little became the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault.  This case is widely regarded within legal circles as a pioneering instance of the application of scientific jury selection. The defense used social science surveys aimed to compare contemporary attitudes among white people toward black people between Beaufort and Pitt Counties, in the state’s northeast, and the north central area of the state. The results clearly revealed  unfavorable racial stereotypes were more prevalent in Beaufort County.  Approximately, two thirds of the respondents in Beaufort and Pitt Counties believed that black women were “lewder” than white women and that black people were more violent than white people (Abramson, 2000).
  4. With the establishment of the usefulness of social science methodology in the previous cases, it was only natural that civil litigation would soon begin to utilize trial consultants as well. In 1976, Donald Vinson, a professor, was hired by the law firm of Cravath, Swaine, and Moore to assist on an Antitrust Case against their client, IBM. The jury selection process was critical due to the complex nature of the case, laden with technical and economic jargan. It was hypothesized by the defense team that jurors would likely resort to corporate bias, believing that the large company was likely guilty of anything it was accused of. It was Vinson’s task to uncover potential jurors’ pretrial attitudes using methods such as survey research and focus groups. Vinson’s scientific jury selection techniques contributed to IBM winning the case.

Clearly, the history of scientific jury selection illustrates the pivotal role social science can have in diverse cases including criminal, governmental, and civil.


Abramson, Jeffrey. 2000. We, the jury: the jury system and the ideal of democracy; with a new preface. Harvard Univ. Press.

Hans, V. P., & Vidmar, N. (1982). Jury selection. In R. M. Bray & N. L. Kerr (Eds.), The psychology of the courtroom (pp. 39-82). New York: Academic Press.

Lieberman, J. D. & Sales, B. D. (2007). Scientific Jury Selection. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 5.

New York Times. 26 Feb 1989. Joan Little, Tried for Killing Jailer In 1974, Is Arrested in New Jersey.

Strier, F. (1999). Whither trial consulting? Issues and projections. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 93-115.

Wrightsman, L. S. (2001). Forensic psychology. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth

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