Criminal jurors in American courts typically deliver their judgments through “general verdicts,” which announce only their legal conclusions of “guilty” or “not guilty.” An alternative format, the “special verdict,” would require jurors to confirm their findings of fact regarding each element of the applicable law before reaching a conclusion. Courts have long rejected the use of special verdicts in criminal cases, under the presumption that general verdicts better protect criminal defendants and their right to trial by jury. However, this procedural status quo and its underlying rationale have never been empirically examined—until now.
This Article presents the results of an original nationwide survey on criminal verdict format that comprehensively measured the perspectives of over 1,600 stakeholders in the American legal system: state and federal judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, law professors, criminal science experts, civil litigators, and jury-eligible lay citizens—with former criminal defendants, victims, and jurors also included in the sample. The data reveal that criminal case law’s longstanding position and presumptions on verdict format are strikingly misaligned with the views and intuitions of current legal stakeholders. The majority of stakeholder groups—including criminal defense attorneys and jury-eligible lay citizens—on average supported the use of special criminal verdicts and expected this format to benefit criminal defendants and jurors in various ways. Furthermore, even the only two stakeholder groups that on average supported the legal status quo in favor of general criminal verdicts—prosecutors and judges—did not subscribe to its rationale that special verdicts will disadvantage criminal defendants.
The survey’s findings call the criminal legal system’s status quo on verdict format into question by debunking the conventional wisdom on which it is based. The Article also draws upon the data to consider why the norm in favor of general criminal verdicts nonetheless persists. It concludes by identifying next empirical steps to qualitatively understand and experimentally test the legal and psychological implications of verdict format in criminal cases.