Gender Bias in Court System

2137 words | 6 page(s)

Gender bias plays an undeniable role in the judicial system. Outlined in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the Women’s Rights convention, held at Seneca Falls in 1848, is a list of grievances that clearly depicts the perceived inferiority of women in the United States; women were being judged not only differently, but also more harshly, while the same injustices were overlooked in men. While analyzing the evolution of women’s rights in America, one may wonder whether the opposite is true today. While it is evident that certain double standards still exist, when it comes to the judicial system are the women in today’s society being convicted more leniently than their male counterparts? An unmistakable example of gender bias in the court systems is the Casey Anthony trial, in which Casey, a nineteen-year-old woman, is accused of the murder of her two-year-old daughter, and acquitted of all charges despite the incriminatory evidence against her. Would Casey Anthony have been found innocent had she been a man? According to various researchers, jury decision-making is affected not only by the maleness or femaleness associated with gender-bias, but also the psychological balance of the juror, and physical traits such as attractiveness of the defendant.

Thomas (2010) focuses on the psychological aspects of juror decision-making, where jurors contradict each other even after going through the same exposure to facts and evidence related to a case. The author’s emphasis is on the scientific investigation of the methods used to settle court decisions. She finds that there is a small gender bias when juries perform this civic duty. It is also worth noting that the psychological balance between different jurors is hard to determine, especially in this information age where the Internet can have a negative influence on decision-making (Hastie, 1993).

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The representation of female jurors also goes a long way in gauging the perception of gender bias in court decisions. Hastie (1993) describes the participation of female jurors in justice systems, underlining that women have been excluded in the judicial process for eons. In the Supreme Court’s justification for female jurors, they held that each sex contributes a unique element in the process of deliberations. Also, female jurors were expected to bring a distinctive voice to the case in question under the administration of the courts (Hastie, 1993). As a result, the court held that a perpetrator’s right to a fair and impartial jury is not compromised by the use of gender-based challenges. In addition, the author noted that decisions made by jurors are consistent with their day-to-day experiences; As a result, criminal defendants are allowed to inquire about the racial make-up of the members of the jury (Fowler, 2005).

It is also worth elaborating on the impact of defendant’s demographic characteristics to jury verdicts, where the moral reasoning of a mock jury session was tested. Although the study was designed to measure the cognitive inclinations of jurors, the research involved definite instances of bias when subjects attempted to estimate recidivism of female defendants (Kutys, 2013). By the end of the study, socioeconomic status was found to have an insignificant effect on juror decisions, as well as the confirmation of motivated reasoning after biased incidents amongst the jurors.

Furthermore, the author examined the consequence of physical traits, such as attractiveness in the case of a female defendant in a murder trial (Kutys, 2013). Research has supported the views that attractive defendants receive preferable treatment regardless of the crime. Specifically, Thompson, Merrifield and Chinnery (2011) deduced that jurors are susceptible to misinformation, where they perceive physically desirable persons as more righteous than their uglier counterparts. As a result, good-looking defendants received far less harsh sentences in the course of the mock-judicial exercise. The study interestingly analyzed the consequence of facial expressions in defendants, where a smiling defendant from the opposite sex received lenient verdicts from jurors (Thompson, Merrifield & Chinnery, 2011).

Another study was conducted to investigate the implications of juror decisions in forensic medicine, where the trials involved forensic examinations. This study distinguished forensic trials from others in order to increase the validity and reliability of court-presented forensic medical evidence in the course of making jury decisions. By the end of the exercise, it was apparent that the male defendants were the unfortunate recipients of harsher verdicts than their female counterparts. It is worth noting that the cases ranged from murder to manslaughter charges. Researchers also realized that a larger number of female defendants won the case against them, as well as realized that the female defendants were deemed more trustworthy than their male counterparts (Thompson, Merrifield & Chinnery, 2011).

A further research exercise concentrated on the influence of the attorney’s gender on jury bias, and also examined the lawyers’ ages and case objectives. During this analysis, research subjects went through the closing arguments in a libel case written by an attorney of law. After reading the arguments, the participants were required to gauge the effectiveness of each argument, after being given the biographical information of the respective lawyer. When the participants were questioned regarding their perceived competence and eloquence of the attorneys, female attorneys were judged more proficient in their work than the males. As a result, male members of the jury were easily persuaded by female attorneys and vice versa (Jakubaszek, 2014).

A further experiment was conducted in which participants received a narration containing details of a murder trial where the independent variable, the sex of the defendant, was manipulated, to gauge whether or not the defendant’s gender influenced the participant to agree with the ultimate charge of manslaughter or apply a lesser charge. As expected, participants who received a narrative containing a female defendant were more sympathetic, therefore convicted more leniently than the participants who received a narrative containing a male defendant.

Such experiments illustrate the varying influences of gender in jury action, confirming the long-held beliefs about gender bias in judicial systems. In the present study, participants will consider a scenario with either a male or female defendant. The gender, age, and ethnicity of the participants will be recorded. Our hypotheses are:

(1) Female defendants will receive more lenient sentences than male defendants.
(2) Female participants will judge more harshly than male participants for both male and female defendants.
(3) No other demographic variables will affect the results.

Data were collected from 39 (11 men, 28 women) undergraduates at Kean University, a coeducational public university in Union, New Jersey. Demographically, the university is composed primarily of white students; as such, the current sample (which was representative of the campus at large) consisted primarily of white students. The demographics of participants in this study consisted of 66.7 percent white students, 17.9 Hispanic students, 10.3 percent black students, and an equal percent of 2.6 Asian students. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 52 years (M=24.26 years).

In order to conduct this study, an informed consent form containing information about procedures, benefits and risks of participating was distributed (Appendix A), along with a narrative containing a male defendant (Appendix B) or a female defendant (Appendix C). Attached to the narrative were four short questions to gauge how the participants would convict the defendant, along with three demographic questions (Appendices D and E). Afterward, participants were provided with a debriefing form (Appendix F).

Design and Procedure
The design of this study is experimental. Two professors at Kean University agreed to allow their students a chance to volunteer for the experiment. Before the experiment was conducted, it was explained that the duration of the experiment would be no more than five minutes, and that there were no significant risks associated with participating. Participants were also told the purpose of running this experiment (to study jury decision-making), while the expected outcome or hypotheses remained concealed. After being told that this experiment is completely voluntary, and that they have the right to withdraw at any moment, participants received the informed consent forms, which they signed and returned before receiving the narrative. When students finished, they received a debriefing form, along with a piece of candy for their participation.

Statistical Analyses
Charge. An independent-samples t-test was calculated comparing the mean scores of the charges that participants thought were appropriate for the male and female defendants. No significant difference was found (-.937(30) =.356, p >.05). The mean of the charge that participants thought was appropriate for the male defendant (M = 2.31, sd =.855) was not significantly different from the charge that participants thought was appropriate for the female defendant (M = 2.58, sd =.769). A higher score indicates a charge that would receive a lighter sentence. Therefore, there was a trend toward females being charged with less serious crimes in this scenario. However, the study did not have the power to determine if this result is meaningful.

Sentencing. An independent-samples t-test was calculated comparing the mean scores of the sentences that participants thought were appropriate for the male and female defendants. No significant difference was found (.431(37) =.669, p >.05). The mean of the sentence that participants thought was appropriate for the male defendant (M = 3.79, sd = 1.084) was not significantly different from the mean of the sentence that participants thought was appropriate for the female defendant (M = 3.65, sd =.933).

Years. An independent-samples t-test was calculated comparing the mean score of the number of years that participants thought was appropriate for the male, and female defendant. No significant difference was found (.734(25) =.470, p >.05). The mean of the number of years that participants thought was appropriate for the male defendant (M = 13.15, sd = 9.745) was not significantly different from the number of years that participants thought was appropriate for the female defendant (M = 10.79, sd =.6.863). However, again there was a trend to sentence the male defendant to a harsher sentence.

The hypotheses for this study were:
(1) Female defendants will receive more lenient sentences than male defendants.
(2) Female participants will judge more harshly than male participants for both male and female defendants.
(3) No other demographic variables will affect the results.

Null hypothesis number 3 was tested. Participants were compared based upon age and ethnicity. However, since there was no significant difference as expected, those results were not detailed here.

Our study failed to find a significant difference between men and women jurors in a homicide trial scenario, nor did we find a difference between men and women defendants regarding appropriate charges, sentences, nor length of time that should be spent in jail due to conviction on the charges. There are two possible reasons for this: (1) Advances in viewpoints amongst college students regarding “evil” or “appropriate” behavior of men and women has diminished sex biases, leading to male and female jurors acting more similarly to each other and male and female defendants being treated more similarly to each other. Or: (2) Biases still exist, but our study did not have the power to detect them. We may have had adequate numbers of subjects if there had not been much variability, but in this case variability was relatively high.

Future studies should be conducted on this topic, since it is important to determine if gender creates bias so that such bias can be counteracted in the court room, and since we did have trends in the expected directions. Since intergroup differences may be subtle and individual variability relatively high, a higher number of subjects should be recruited, perhaps 50 to 100 per subject group. One way to increase participation is to offer slightly larger compensation. While monetary compensation should not be so high that subjects feel coerced, something like $20 would be enough to entice without a coercive element. In this study, time and financial considerations limited recruitment.

It would be comforting to believe that sex biases have been diminished in our society and are on their way to being eliminated. However, most students have at least a few experiences suggesting that this has not yet happened. Furthermore, the literature review at the beginning of this report indicates that this has not yet happened. Before such a conclusion can be reached, a larger study must be performed that has sufficient power to detect subtle biases if they exist, then it would need to be examined for possible weak points and replicated. As long as there are other possible explanations for a failure to reach significance, a failure to reject the null hypothesis is not the same as proof of the null hypothesis.

  • Fowler, L. (2005). Gender and jury deliberations: The contributions of social science. Wm. & Mary J. Women & L.,12, 1.
  • Hastie, R. (1993). Inside the juror: The psychology of juror decision making. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jakubaszek, J. (2014). The Influence of Attorney’s Gender, Age, and Goal on Jury Bias.
  • Kutys, J. M. (2013). Juror Decision Making: The Impact of Attractiveness and Socioeconomic Status on Criminal Sentencing and an Examination of Motivated Reasoning in Mock Jurors (Doctoral dissertation, Wright State University).
  • Thomas, C. (2010). Are juries fair? (pp. 1-65). London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Thompson, S. B., Merrifield, A., & Chinnery, H. L. (2011). Are mock jurors influenced by the defendant’s gender, socio-economic status and emotional state in forensic medicine?

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