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Narrative Relevance, Imagined Juries, and a Supreme Court Inspired Agenda for Jury Research

NCJ Number
International Review of Penal Law Volume: 72 Issue: 1-2 Dated: 2001 Pages: 405-413
Richard O. Lempert
Date Published
9 pages
This article discusses the implications of one case for the Supreme Court’s conception of the jury, and examines the agenda drawn from it for empirical jury research.
In the case Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172 (1997), evidence of the defendant’s prior conviction would have been inadmissible had he been charged only on two counts and not as a “felon in possession.” The defense offered to stipulate to the fact that the defendant was a convicted felon and so would have violated the felon in possession law if the jury found that he had possessed a gun. The prosecutor rejected the stipulation and argued that he had a right to prove this case with whatever relevant evidence he wished. The Supreme Court held that, despite the broad discretion that Federal Rule 403 gives trial judges in deciding whether to exclude evidence because its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect, the trial judge could not reasonably have admitted this evidence given the availability of the stipulation. The stipulation would have given the jury all the information it would have been authorized to draw from evidence of the conviction. The other information that the prosecutor got before the jury by presenting the conviction, the nature of the prior offense, could only have prejudiced the jury by leading it to believe that the defendant was a violent person. The Supreme Court recognized a sense in which evidence can be relevant that does not fit within the Federal Rule’s core definition of relevant evidence. The justification for admitting such evidence, despite the possibility that it might inappropriately sway jurors as it engages their emotions, is that the evidence is needed to place more factually probative or less prejudicial evidence in the context of a convincing narrative about what happened. Research has shown that the order in which evidence is presented affects the degree to which juries are persuaded by it. Also, research shows that jurors that hear a large portion of a familiar story, but not its entirety, may recall story-consistent information that was not presented to them. 26 footnotes