Wednesday, 13 May 2015

REACHING A VERDICT - Witness appeal: How can the way a witness puts forward evidence effect juries verdicts?

Ross: The impact of protective shields and videotape testimony on conviction rates

In many cases involving sexual abuse, kidnapping or domestic violence a child is the only victim. The courtroom procedures can be very stressful and traumatic for children. Sometimes children are allowed to give evidence from behind a screen or via video link to reduce this stress.

However, many defence counsels have argued that this is detrimental to the defendant as it may appear to the jury that the child is in need of protection, suggesting that the defendant is indeed guilty prior to conviction, therefore increasing the likelihood of guilty verdicts.

All children need support and sensitive handling within the legal system. There are a number of difficulties with having children appear in court as witnesses, such as:

Distress: Appearing in court is traumatic for adults, especially when you have to recall distressing things and be cross examined by a lawyer who treats you as if you're lying. It is even more distressing for children to have to confront their abuser in this way.

Suggestibility: Jurors are often unimpressed by a child witness, due to a widespread belief that children make things up, can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality or have ideas put into their heads by lawyers. Children are also extremely led by leading questions which may sway what they say and their memory can also be influenced very easily.

One solution to the problem of psychological distress and harm is to let the child be interviewed in another room, appearing in the court on a video screen. The screen is set up so that the child cannot see their defendant, but the defendant can see the child.

Aim: To find out if the use of protective shields and videotaped testimony increases the likelihood of a guilty verdict.

Method: Mock trial based on a court transcript.

Sample: 300 psychology students, 100 in each condition.

Procedure:  Three versions of the transcript were filmed with actors playing the roles, one in the videotaped condition, another in the shield condition and the last one was open evidence in court (i.e. the child was in full view).

The child actor would give evidence in court and the overall court procedure lasted for 2 hours. This involved the father (alleged sexual offender who was accused of touching the child in the bath), the mother, and the child herself (witness and victim). The judge read a warning before the use of screen or video tape directing the jury not to imply guilt by their use.

Results: There was no significant difference in guilty verdicts across the three groups. Therefore, shields can be used to protect the children, without it having an effect on the verdict.

However there was a significantly higher tendency for females to find the defendant guilty. Possibly because females may have a more protective instinct with children, however this was not proven in the study.


Credibility inflation – where a child’s testimony is enhanced because they are protected with the shield from trauma

Credibility deflation – where a child witness is seen as fragile and unreliable because of the shield.

Conclusion: This study shows that when a judges warning is given there are no disadvantages to the defendant in the use of shields and videotapes.

Castellow: The effects of physical attractiveness on jury verdicts

Aim: To see if an attractive defendant (accused/criminal) is less likely to be seen as guilty. Also to see if the victim is attractive, is the defendant more likely to be found guilty.

Method: A lab experiment using a mock trial format. Independent measures.

Participants: 71 male and 74 female who participated for credit for university.

Procedure: Participants were told that they would be reading a sexual harassment case and would have to answer questions on it.

With the case were attached photographs of the victim and defendant. These were previously categorised by a panel of individuals as either attractive or unattractive. The participants were asked if they believed the defendant is guilty. Participants were also asked to rate the defendant and victim on certain characteristics.

Attractive victims and defendants were rated more positively on their characteristics.

When the defendant was was attractive, guilty verdicts were found 56%. However, when the defendant was unattractive the guilty verdicts were a lot higher.

When the victim was was attractive, guilty verdicts were given 77%. However, when the victim was unattractive, the guilty verdicts were a lot less.

Conclusion: It appears the halo effect plays a part in jury's decisions. This is when you find some attractive, you assume that they have other positive characteristics. It is well advised that people appearing in court make the best of their appearance.

Penrod and Cutler - The effect of witness confidence on jurors assessment of eyewitness evidence:

An experiment using a mock trial scenario. Independent measures. 

Participants: Undergraduates 

Procedure: a videotaped trial of a robbery was presented in which eyewitness identification played a key role. The witness testified that she was either 80% of 100% confident that she had identified the robber. After watching the film they were asked to decide whether the robber was guilty or not. 

Participants who heard the witness was 100% confident gave guilty verdicts to the robber 67% of the time.
Participants who heard the witness was 80% confident gave guilty verdicts to the robber 60% of the time. 

Conclusion: This shows that witness confidence is a poor predictor of how accurate the witness actually is. It shows the jurors will be easily influenced by the confidence of the witness. Therefore this could mean that some guilty criminals will be let off! 

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