Post No.: 0635
All evidence that will be relied upon in court by the prosecution should be disclosed to the defence in advance of the trial so that they can prepare their arguments and counter-evidence for it; unless the disclosure of a particular piece of information would be detrimental to the public interest. (The defence must in turn disclose advance details regarding any witnesses they intend to call at the trial.)
With this information, the defence might change their plea in a criminal prosecution (like a first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter case), if they figure out they’re not likely going to win, which has the benefit of saving everyone time. In the case of a civil lawsuit (like a personal injury or small claims case), the defence might decide to settle out of court. For the claimants, settling out of court might minimise their legal costs, save time and reduce stress and uncertainty. (When a large organisation with a large legal counsel decides to settle out of court though, it can appear like they’ve basically tacitly admitted they would’ve lost; although we might never know for sure.)
Throughout a criminal trial, the prosecution must reveal any evidence that might even help prove the innocence of the defendant or undermine the case of the prosecution, based on what the police have gathered and provided. However, police investigations are sometimes too focused on trying to prove a suspect’s guilt when they should also follow any lines of inquiry that might support the suspect’s innocence too. The goal isn’t so much to convict but to come to the right, just, outcome.
This post effectively continues on from Post No.: 0566, which introduced jury trials and began to touch upon how jurors tend to think. And although the biggest influence on jurors is the strength of the evidence presented against the defendant – other (should be) completely irrelevant factors also influence their decisions. For instance, physically attractive defendants tend to be acquitted more or at least receive lighter sentences than average (as long as their looks weren’t used to actually carry out the crime e.g. a romantic swindle). And racial minorities (especially negatively-stereotyped racial groups) tend to be sent to prison more frequently in Western countries (although only for the particular crimes these social categories of people are stereotypically linked with e.g. black people are more stereotypically linked with burglaries than with white collar crimes). People hold stereotypes associated with people’s socio-economic statuses too. When these stereotypes match, people have a tendency to seek less additional information to help them come to a decision and they instead rely more on their pre-existing biases.
Prosecutors are also less likely to file charges against female than male narcotics offenders; more likely grant pre-trial release for women than for men; and less likely to incarcerate women following a trial compared to men i.e. women tend to face lighter punishments if they’re found guilty. Males are more likely to be found guilty for crimes like assault and theft, and victims of male defendants are believed more than victims of female defendants i.e. males are seen as less honest in a criminal context. This may be because males are more stereotypically seen as having the characteristics consistent with being a criminal, like aggression and assertiveness.
While it’s overwhelmingly true that it’s males who commit most crimes in the first place (especially violent crimes), thus this stereotype is generally accurate – ‘generally accurate’ doesn’t mean ‘100% accurate’, and any individual male, or female or other, in any individual case may in fact be innocent or guilty. After all, the majority of males in this world have never committed a serious crime like murder or rape, thus if we are to stereotype males – we should perhaps stereotype them as mostly innocent.
But it’s not about stereotyping people either positively or negatively but treating every case as an individual case. We’re not judging a population or a random sample and relying on the raw probabilities based on the base rates for the entire population – since these become, not totally, but less relevant – but trying to judge an individual according to the evidence that’s being presented to us within this individual case. We must not prejudge but judge. We must take every case on an individual basis.
Sometimes female defendants get treated more severely than male defendants though, like if the case is about a woman sexually harassing a man or a female murdering children – possibly because of expected gender roles and normative levels of sexual aggressiveness, or the view that women committing crimes is generally abnormal i.e. sexist stereotypes once more. Males and females actually express similar levels of aggression but women are expected to be less aggressive than men, so if a woman is seen to be as aggressive as a man can be, it would subjectively seem like this woman is more aggressive than a man who had objectively acted in exactly the same way (‘shifting standards’ – that’s why female bosses are often criticised as being ‘bossyboots’ for just ordering people about like male bosses do). We compare to stereotypical gender-based standards.
Female defendants cannot so easily as men be represented by a criminal stereotype thus one’s cognitive capacity possibly isn’t quite as free to focus on the evidence than if there were an easy and congruent criminal stereotype for women. So this may be why jurors acquit males more than females when a case is weak?
Many of us hold erroneous or unfair stereotypes regarding what a typical murderer is like – at least partially because of the described and depicted stereotypes that persist in fictional media that we’ve been raised reading about or watching. The majority of convicted murderers in ‘the West’ are male, unemployed and do not have a known recorded criminal history. But plenty more furry innocent people possess these features too! They are also more likely to offend alone, target men as victims and are, on average, around their early 30s.
The acts of serial killers, in ‘the West’ again, tend to be deliberate and premeditated affairs and are sexually predatory in nature, with a lack of interpersonal conflict and provocation. Sex is often used by a serial killer to achieve power and control over their victim, as opposed to sex being an end in itself. Serial killers are usually motivated by the thrill of feeling psychological power and/or sexual sadism and frequently fantasise about planning, with detail, the murdering of a specific victim. Some common characteristics of serial killers in ‘the West’ are Caucasian male, moderate-to-high intelligence, typically between 25-45 years old, and they act alone and use strangulation, stabbing or beating as a means of killing. Female serial killers are rare but are typically motivated by financial security, revenge, enjoyment and sexual stimulation, and they often act alone and use poisoning as a means of killing. Unlike male murderers, female murderers frequently know their victims.
While we’re on the subject of serial killers – serial killers are likely to use familiar and similar event locations (but different specific physical locations) for their crimes, and move the bodies from one location to another to dispose of them in remote places. Some are regular drug users. Animal cruelty, arson, prior sexual offence, sexual abuse, social deprivation and/or neglect are often correlated with their childhoods.
A serial killer tends to select a personal ‘type of victim’ with whom they have easy access to, select typically vulnerable people (e.g. women, children, patients, the elderly, disabled, homeless, prostitutes) or types of people they personally despise. In contrast to male serial killers, female serial killers target more victims whom they know and whom they’ve shared some kind of relationship with (e.g. family members, infants or persons whom are dependent on them). The split between stranger and non-stranger victims is about even overall though.
The actions and motivations of serial killers are diverse, intricate and include cross-cultural variations though. Also, the definition of ‘serial killer’ is arbitrary (and murderers who might’ve gone on to kill more had they not been apprehended early on may be missed from the count).
Note that all of the above is based on the generalised characteristics of those murderers who’ve been caught and convicted and thus included in the data – therefore the false positives, false negatives and true negatives (e.g. most males and the unemployed don’t ever commit murder) are not accounted for. So we shouldn’t go around feeling paranoid about everyone who appears to ‘fit the description’. This conveniently brings us back to the subject of relying too much on stereotypes and inferences.
Stereotypes are incredibly inherently difficult to displace from our unconscious minds though, but some processes can help override their effects.
One simple method is to change the order in which jurors are asked to consider verdicts in cases involving more than one verdict – they could, for instance, be asked whether the defendant is guilty of the most serious verdict first then worked down the list to being asked whether they are guilty of the most lenient verdict last (e.g. murder, then manslaughter, assault, then not guilty). The order that the verdicts are considered shouldn’t really matter yet this results in more harsh verdicts than the other way around. This is due to anchoring and confirmation bias – if we are first focused on trying to find reasons to give the harshest verdict, we’ll focus on the evidence that suggests consistency with this verdict, and the first verdict that one can strongly justify and settle on tends to be difficult to later shift out of the forefront of our minds.
Of course we want to maximise the influence of the quality or content of an argument or piece of evidence and minimise the influence of all those things that are peripheral or unrelated to the quality or content of an argument or piece of evidence.
Directly-connected-to-the-incident and relatively unambiguous evidence (e.g. it was a strangling that left clear hand prints on the victim and no DNA other than that of the suspect and the victim were present on the victim’s neck) should always weigh more than loosely-connected-to-the-incident and relatively ambiguous evidence, no matter how many pieces of such evidence have been presented (e.g. a witness saw another person walk by that approximate area around that approximate time, and the victim had an argument with that person the night before too).
Woof. Just a few things to be cognizant of if you ever get called up for jury service. If you’re a true crime fan then you can input your thoughts by clicking on the Twitter comment button below. Like for every post in this blog, you always have a chance to share your views, comments and give any constructive feedback you wish.