Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Commentary / Blogs / Anne Reed / They're Out There

They're Out There

The New York Times had a nice article yesterday on conspiracy theorists, especially those who believe the Apollo moon landings were a government hoax. It's a good reminder that — unlike all the things they believe are out there — conspiracy theorists really are out there, and on juries.

You know about the most widely held conspiracy theories: moon landings a fraud, 9/11 attacks and the Holocaust hoaxes too, Elvis isn't dead, the CIA killed John F. Kennedy, and so on. What you might not realize is how common it is to find a broader sort of "conspiracy mindset," an approach to the world, in jurors.

The lawyers did it

You'll see it, though, if you do a few mock trials. Almost every mock trial I've worked on has had at least one person who could fairly be called a conspiracy theorist. They're the folks who find gaps you never dreamed you'd left in the evidence (sometimes gaps that aren't there at all) and fill them by imagining dark secret dealings behind the scenes. I'm not talking about legitimate inferences from suggestive evidence; I mean wacky conspiracies. In one mock trial about contract negotiations that began, fell silent, and then recommenced after several months, a mock juror suggested to her group that the transaction lawyers on both sides of the deal must have had a secret agreement going. In the observation room, eyebrows rose as the lawyers and clients realized that no one on the panel was going to contradict her.

Conspiracy theorists aren't simply common; they also have a lot in common, and that is separately important to trial lawyers. Here's a character sketch from the New York Times article. As you read it, think about which side wants this juror:

Ted Goertzel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied conspiracy theorists, said “there’s a similar kind of logic behind all of these groups, I think.” For the most part, he explained, “They don’t undertake to prove that their view is true” so much as to “find flaws in what the other side is saying.” And so, he said, argument is a matter of accumulation instead of persuasion. “They feel if they’ve got more facts than the other side, that proves they’re right.”

Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who has written extensively on conspiracy theories, said . . . at the core . . . is a polarization so profound that people end up with an unshakable belief that those in power “simply can’t be trusted.”

* * * *

Adam Savage, the co-star of the television show “MythBusters,” [said that the theorists] never give up. “They’ll say you have to keep an open mind,” he said, “but they reject every single piece of evidence that doesn’t adhere to their thesis.”

Got the picture? Focused entirely on what the other side failed to prove, convinced that those in power are corrupt liars, and willing to argue longer than anyone else. A prosecutor's nightmare, most of the time. Definitely not the profile many business defendants are looking for. But hardly a clear call for any party, even if you're accusing the other side of corruption. These are forceful, voluble, unpredictable jurors who won't compromise. Learn to recognize them where you can; and if you leave one on the jury, pack extra antacid in your briefcase.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *