Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime and sympathy

I just read an interesting article by Sam Sommers, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Tufts University about how we tend to sympathize with those to whom we are similar.  In his article, Excuses, Excuses, Dr. Sommers uses the examples of the so-called "Craigslist Killer" and a church deacon who robbed a bank.

He points out that in Philip Markoff's case, his fiancee had a hard time coming to grips with his dark side.

In the case of the deacon bank robber, Bruce Windsor, he points out that media coverage focused the role the economic downturn may have played in Mr. Windsor's decision to don a mask and rob a bank four days after his 43rd birthday.

In both cases, no one could believe that either man was capable of doing what they did.

Now this is where it gets interesting: researchers Craig Haney, Laura Sweeney and Mona Lynch conducted mock-jury experiments to looking at how jurors make choices in capital murder trials. In their research they found that white jurors tend to overvalue aggravating factors and undervalue mitigating factors when the defendant is African-American. This valuation process goes a long way in explaining why blacks accused of murdering whites are much more likely to receive a death sentence that a white accused of murdering an African-American.

This same phenomenon may also explain why Barry Bonds has been vilified for (allegedly) taking steroids while rarely a word is said about Mark McGwire.

Due to the manner in which jury panels are drawn, an African-American defendant will usually find himself staring at a jury that looks nothing like him. The key is to convince those panelists that your client isn't a bad person but is, instead, a good person who made a mistake. Use voir dire to seek out bridges between your client and the jury panel that can be crossed during trial so that the jury can connect with your client.

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