May 25, 2010 A study of 300 simulated court cases shows that experienced judges, lay assessors, prosecutors, police officers, and lawyers make decisions and convict defendants differently depending on whether they are men or women and what the defendant looks like. Eyewitnesses to crimes are also affected by these factors. This is especially pronounced if there is an extended period of time separating the crime and the testimony. This is what Angela S. Ahola, Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, shows in her dissertation.
In her study of simulated short criminal cases, Angela S. Ahola shows that gender and appearance affect our judgments of personality, occupation, morals, and reliability and create a frame of reference for our behavior. Among other things, it was shown that judges and lay assessors both assessed and judged accused individuals of the same gender as themselves more severely than the opposite gender. On the other hand, prosecutors, lawyers, police officers, and law students, regardless of their own gender, evaluated male defendants more harshly than women defendants. What's more, among female members of this category, that is, those without a convicting role in the legal process, differences were seen in their evaluations depending on the looks of the accused.
"Most people have a need to get some conception of people they meet in everyday life. This is normal in everyday life. But if the same preconceptions, or so-called harmless everyday conceptions, play a role in the system of justice, this means that people are not equal before the law. In that case, we lose part of the fundamental security that a functioning rule-of-law society provides," says Angela S. Ahola.
Angela S. Ahola also demonstrates that it is not only people within the justice system that are affected. A study of eyewitnesses to a fictive crime shows that male perpetrators are judged more severely than equally violent female perpetrators. If two weeks goes by after the witnessing of the crime, gender plays an even greater role. A man will be judged even more sternly than a woman, which means that when our memory does not serve, we tend to remember more in accordance with the image, or stereotype, we have in our minds.
Photographic evidence also turned out to have a reinforcing effect in judgments. In the part of the study where psychology students were asked to play the role of lay assessors and judges, perpetrators accused of murder or arson were judged more harshly if the evidence was illustrated by crime scene photographs.
Angela S. Ahola maintains that these findings may be of importance regarding whether photographic evidence should be used in court, considering what an impact it can have.
"With these findings, the dissertation can be of practical use for our understanding of how the Swedish and perhaps other countries system of justice can be affected as regards witness testimony, assessment of evidence, and sentencing," says Angela S. Ahola.
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