Nearly everyone is familiar with the iconic symbol of the court system. Lady Justice wears a blindfold and holds the scale of justice in one hand, a sword in the other. There are variations where Lady Justice isn't blindfolded, but in most instances, her purpose is to convey the ideal of one who is dedicated to dispensing justice fairly and with equanimity.
There are variations, of course. Here at Women in Crime Ink, we use Lady Justicia in our logo, with the sword replaced by a pen. In other instances, she's been shown carrying a variety of objects including a book, a scepter, a bundle of rods, a human skull and even animals. There have also been less flattering depictions throughout history, where our lady is seen without hands or holding a severed human head. Yet Justicia's predominantly a symbol for justice, which begs the question, is justice really blind?
I know I normally talk about forensic science, the various disciplines and how they affect the courtroom. But today I'd like to focus on the most important people in the courtroom: the jury. In my book, LEGAL EASE: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure, 2nd edition, I define a jury as a community composite of registered voters, licensed drivers, or some other such system, who are called in for jury duty on behalf of the state. A jury consists of twelve men and women—along with, at times, two alternates, in case of illness of a principal juror. Jurors promise to listen to the facts and testimony, and then render an impartial and fair decision based on the law. The key words here are "impartial and fair decision." Yet if it’s your head on the line, think seriously, is this true?
A New Study
Maybe not. Questions are being raised by a new Cornell University study, which concluded that "unattractive defendants" are 22 percent more likely to be convicted and tend to get hit with longer, harsher sentences — an average of 22 months longer in prison. Justin Gunnell, a Cornell Law School graduate, began working on the study as an undergraduate, and with the aid of Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology, developed a thesis that jurors who processed information in an emotional or intuitive manner were more likely to make reasoning errors in both the verdict and the sentencing phase.
The researchers began by identifying two kinds of jurors: emotionally moved people who gave harsher verdicts to unattractive defendants and those who relied upon rational means and focused less on the defendants’ looks. “The results bore out our hypothesis on all measures," says lead author Gunnell. The study, “When Emotionality Trumps Reason,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
How was this determined? In the course of the study, 169 Cornell psychology undergraduates took an online survey designed to reveal how they processed information, rationally or emotionally. Once categorized, they were given a case study that included a photograph of an actual defendant and his or her general profile. In addition, they read real jury instructions and listened to the cases' closing arguments.
The result was that while both groups convicted attractive defendants at similar rates and were less biased in the face of strong evidence or very serious offences, the jurors' reasoning style tended to play out “in cases where the evidence is ambiguous and the charged offense is somewhat minor,” said Gunnell, who now practices commercial litigation in New York City.
Since picking a jury may be one of the most important elements of winning a case, many lawyers have both strange and sensible ideas about their choices. Along with intuition, some of their less studied hunches can prove ridiculous or even superstitious.
A few of the more common ideas surrounding jury selection are that older people are more tolerant and, as a consequence, may be indulgent. Females are thought to be hard with sentencing other females, whereas college-educated females under the age of 35 are thought to be defendant-favorable. And because most law enforcement employees feel that blacks from inner city developments have built-in prejudice toward cops, many defense attorneys believe that as well. Certain groups are labeled as too intelligent, so writers, editors, and publishers are looked at with caution (thanks!).
Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant who has worked on over six hundred jury trials including Rodney King, McMartin Preschool, and the O.J. Simpson case says, “Each courtroom is a microcosm of life, filled with anger, nervousness, prejudice, fear, greed, deceit, and every other conceivable human emotion and trait. There, and everywhere, every person reveals his emotions and beliefs in many ways.”
Gunnell claims the study could contribute to refinements in jury selection techniques. In cases where the evidence strongly favors one side, a lawyer might want to identify rational jurors. But in a case with an emotional tug, a defense attorney might try to screen out highly rational jurors. “Every person is capable of reasoning via either system and likely uses each system to some degree depending on context,” Gunnell says. “The degree to which one system predominates the other is a factor that varies, depending on the individual's natural preference and style.” He said the findings are important because “22 months may not seem like a lot to an outsider, but I guarantee that to the person serving the sentence it will seem like a lot.”