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Friday, June 12, 2009

Community Attitude Surveys: Cheap, informative, effective

It was reported yesterday in the Modesto Bee that two-thirds of those surveyed already believed that Columbus Allen Jr. is guilty of killing California Highway Patrol Officer Earl Scott. Allen's defense team is attempting to use the survey in support of a change of venue motion, but the judge seems unlikely to grant the request. It is instructive to read the stream of vitriol posted by readers commenting on the article.

My god, they should of tried him the moment they arrested him... OFF TO THE GALLOWS BOY!

The evidence is clear. He killed Earl Scott. He is guilty, nothing else left to discuss, time for him to suffer and die a slow slow death.

This poor excuse for a life form was stupid enough to show up later with gunshot residue on his hands and arms. i am willing to bet he wasn't at the gun range practicing. guilty. fry him. this society is already paying for enough criminals and cannot afford them.

Of course everybody knows he's F*%&ing guilty! He murdered a CHP officer on 99 when everyone was commuting. I still remember that morning driving past that grim scene.
Why has this trial been put-off for so long? Get it the hell over with and sentence him!

Of course, this is a murder case, with lots of pretrial publicity. We should not be surprised to see strong public attitudes. In addition, the defense team has conducted the survey to achieve a very specific purpose: get the trial out of Stanislaus County. That said, a community attitude survey can be extremely helpful for civil litigation, as well.

Imagine you are defending a hospital in a medical malpractice case. Wouldn't it be useful to know whether the hospital is held in high esteem, as compared to others in the community? Are the people in this jurisdiction particularly dissatisfied with the quality of healthcare they receive? Is there an ongoing shortage of primary care physicians, causing patients to wait for appointments? Has the "torts crisis" argument taken hold in this community? These are all questions that can be answered with a community attitude survey. A survey of hundreds or thousands of people can be conducted for less money than a one-day focus group study with only a handful of subjects.

The judge in your case has authorized the use of a supplemental juror questionnaire, but she has made it clear that it is NOT going to be 75 pages long. She orders you to get your act together and submit no more than a dozen case-specific questions. How do you decide which questions to use? (After all, your trial consultant has written more than 30 truly outstanding questions for you) Commission a survey with your top candidate questions. This provides you an opportunity to analyze the responses of jury-eligible members of the community. You will undoubtedly discover that some questions just don't generate any useful range of answers. Others produce responses that don't seem to correlate with attitudes related to the case. The key is to find those questions that effectively distinguish between people who seem generally sympathetic to your case and those who do not. Now you can submit your short list of questions to the judge with confidence that they will produce results in jury selection.

Surveys have several advantages over other methods of pretrial research.

First, a survey typically involves many more subjects. This means more data and more confidence in the results.

Second, a survey can be conducted in the background while the trial team is busy taking care of other matters. There is no need to find a date on which the entire trial team, witnesses, parties and trial consultants can all be in the same place at the same time.

Third, since a survey is conducted without direct involvement of the trial team, subjects can be recruited for subsequent interviews or focus group study without the "contamination of advocacy." So, a survey can be a preliminary research step. leading to more targeted efforts.

Fourth, a survey can be tweaked as it is being conducted. Obviously, the analysis of any particular set of responses is limited by the number of subjects who were asked the same question. There is not harm, however, in figuring out halfway through that you really should have included a question about home foreclosures. The survey research company can include it for all subjects from that point forward. It is much harder to tweak a focus group or mock jury study in the middle.

While it is unlikely that an entire community will have decided on a verdict for your case in advance (although it could happen), a survey can help you identify pervasive attitudes among the people who will be comprising your jury. These attitudes will shape the lens through which jurors will be viewing your case. To stretch the metaphor a bit, you can't grind the right set of corrective lenses (your case presentation) until you know what prescription is needed.

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