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Research shows half of rape jurors make guilty verdict before deliberation

Posted on 21 September 2017

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A Leeds Trinity lecturer's research has shown that nearly half of jurors in rape cases come to a guilty verdict before deliberation, indicating a predictive relationship between juror demographics, personal experience, and psychological make up – impacting upon verdicts in rape cases.

The study, conducted by Forensic Psychology lecturer Dominic Willmott with legal guidance from Manchester based barristers' chambers St John's Buildings, revealed that 43% of jurors chose a pre-deliberation guilty verdict, with this figure rising to 83% within jurors with personal experiences of sexual victimisation. However, 13% changed their decision following discussions with fellow jurors, indicating victims were perhaps able to recognise their pre-existing bias.

A juror's educational background was also shown to have significant implications on expected verdicts. Lesser-educated individuals were more likely to vote not guilty due to an increased tendency to hold more sexually aggressive attitudes, than those educated to degree level or above.

These findings will likely increase calls for jurors in the UK to be screened for pre-conceived bias before being selected as a juror, particularly within rape trials.

Dominic Willmott, who conducted the research earlier this year in his previous role at Huddersfield University, said:

"As has been the case for centuries, defendants have the right to be judged by a panel of their peers, making the concept of juries the heart of our justice system. However, this research shows that for all the best efforts of the courts, juries are not necessarily offering a fair and impartial assessment of the evidence, particularly within rape cases.

"Past experiences play a huge role in shaping the person you are, and inevitably affects your view on society. As well as the importance of demographic features of the jurors, attitudes towards rape were found to be the strongest predictor of high numbers of not guilty verdicts.

"Our study highlights that even before the case has begun, jurors' psycho-social make up predisposes them towards particular verdict decisions, making a vetting system for juries increasingly important. By implementing such a system, we can reduce existing bias from juries, which should result in a greater number of fair outcomes."

The study was commissioned to better understand the psychology of jurors trying allegations of sexual offences in the UK. Ministry of Justice statistics from 2015 reveal that just 1,297 convictions were secured, representing less than 4% of all cases recorded by police over the 12 months.

Using more than 400 volunteers selected randomly from the electoral roll, the study replicated a genuine trial environment in order to assess how attitudes, backgrounds and perceptions can impact on verdicts. Of those that took part, 7.4 per cent reported that they had personally been a victim of a sexual offence, including sexual assault and rape.

After conducting advanced analysis on the data obtained, being a victim of a sexual crime was shown to be a significant predictor of juror behaviour in rape cases, with the research revealing that jurors with personal experience of victimisation were four times more likely to convict in court, prior to deliberations taking place.

Other trends also emerged including men exhibiting a greater preference for the defendant's version of events, while women more frequently identified with the victim. Interestingly, jurors from ethnic communities, including black and Asian jurors, were also shown to align more with the defendant when compared to those who identify as white British, suggesting a greater likelihood of a not guilty verdict.

Nigel Booth, barrister at St John's Buildings, supported the research by helping compile case documents, and by ensuring that the mock trials were realistic and the jury directions accurate. He played the role of the judge (pictured with the trial team). The cases were prosecuted and defended by barristers.

Nigel Booth said: "This research asks some very serious and difficult questions about the fairness of jury trials in rape cases. In recent years the Government has introduced many measures to help complainants feel more at ease with the trial process and to give the best evidence possible, but these measures do not address jurors' previous experiences and beliefs which are shown to have a significant impact on how a juror views a case.

​"For many years, judges have been warning juries against viewing the evidence through the lens of 'stereotypes', however this research suggests these directions are not having the desired effect."