The Defendant-Attribute Effect and Equal Treatment Before the Law
- Published: November 30, 1999
- Written by SamanthaThorogood
A consequence of a common law jury system is that lawyers make their living every day attempting to manipulate perceptions about a defendant or plaintiff. After doing some research, it turns out that there is such a thing as the defendant-attribute effect. Studies have shown that defendants who had been attributed positive characteristics or who are generally likable were treated with significant leniency as compared to those with negative characteristics (Dowdle, Gillen, &Miller, 1974). Furthermore, juror verdicts and sentencing recommendations have been shown to be contingent upon the extent to which the defendant fits the criminal profile. In an experiment by Sigal and Ostrove (1975), defendant attractiveness was manipulated in a courtroom scenario; the results of this study showed that when attractiveness is related to the crime (more typical of the particular type of crime, for example, swindling) the defendant is more easily perceived as guilty.
The defendant-attribute phenomenon begs the question “do all defendants receive equal treatment before the law?” (Maynard, 1982). If we have shown that jury opinions are sensitive to stereotypes and other superficial information about defendants such as their physical appearance and projected personality, can we trust ourselves to make accurate rulings? The defendant-attribute effect also describes the tendency of jurors to empathize with defendants in light of certain extraneous circumstances. Austin, Walter, and Utne (1976) demonstrated that jurors produce more lenient verdicts for defendants with increased suffering or whose accomplice had not been captured.
Knowing this now, I cannot help but recognize that the article’s positive description of the murder suicide victims – including the suicidal shooter – initially stopped me from questioning the integrity of the victims. I was pretty sold on the story of the unexpected father-turned-murderer who only could have done such a thing in a fit of insanity. That is, until I read on in the article and picked up on subtle hints of disarray amongst the family. For instance, Glinton had lost his job the previous day and the children reported arguments over infidelities amongst their parents. Though neighbors, relatives, and friends insisted that everything seemed fine in the household, it goes to show that stereotypes are unreliable markers of criminal liability.
Austin, W., Walster, E., & Utne, M. (1976). Equity and the law: The effect of a harmdoer's "suffering in the act" on liking and assigned punishment. In L. Berkowitz & E. Walster (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Dowdle, M., Gillen, H., & Miller, A. (1974). Integration and attribution theories as predictors of sentencing by a simulated jury. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1 (1), 270-272
Sigall, H, & Ostrove, N. (1975). Beautiful but dangerous: Effects of offender attractiveness and nature of the crime on juridic judgement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 410-414.