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Does race make a difference in how jurors perceive  battered spouse syndrome cases?

Monday, March 21, 2016
posted by Rita Handrich

battered women syndrome youtubeIn a word, yes. But perhaps not in the way you might think. Researchers were interested in seeing if the race of parties involved in battered spouse syndrome case defenses would make a difference in how jurors made decisions about verdicts. The researchers say their study is a contribution to the “scarce literature on the influence of race on perceptions of legal proceedings involving IPV” (i.e., Intimate Partner Violence). We would add it is also a study only examining Intimate Partner Violence in a heterosexual context.

They asked 244 jury-eligible participants (120 men and 124 women who were recruited in the US through an online portal and reported they had never been convicted of a felony) to read a 23-page trial transcript of a “murder case in which the defendant claimed self-defense using evidence of battered spouse syndrome”.

The participants ranged in age from 18 to 69 years, most (78.3%) said they were White, 9% were Black, 5.3% were Latino/Latina, 4.9% were Asian Americans, and 2.5% identified as “Other”. They asked the research participants to offer a verdict, attribution of responsibility for the murder, and their perceptions of the scenario/trial transcript.

The researchers designed their study to manipulate the race of the defendant (the wife) and the victim (the husband) so that the pairings were as follows: White/White, White/Black, Black/Black, and Black/White. Once participants were determined to be eligible to serve as jurors, they were randomly assigned to one of the four “trial” conditions (based on the racial composition of the defendant and the victim). The trial transcript was modeled after the Lavallee v. Regina (1990) case (where a woman claimed self-defense using evidence of Battered Spouse Syndrome resulting from “continued and severe IPV).

The researchers offer the following case summary: “The defendant and her husband were holding a small party at their home the night of the killing. At some point in the evening, people at the party heard the wife/defendant and husband/victim arguing upstairs. The argument escalated as the partygoers also heard yelling, banging, and gunshots; the wife/defendant had shot the husband/victim as he was leaving the room.”

They go on to say that the trial transcript included opening and closing statements, witness evidence, expert witness testimony and direct as well as cross-examination of the defendant. The jury charge was explained in the transcript as well and gave verdict options of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and not guilty on the grounds of self-defense as well as instructions regarding burden of proof and reasonable doubt.

Here is a partial report of their findings:

Black (female) defendants were more likely to be found not guilty by reason of self-defense (53%) than were White (female) defendants (38%).

Male participants (48%) were more likely than women (31%) to vote for a manslaughter conviction. Female participants (56%) were more likely to acquit the (female) defendant than were male participants (33%).

Female participants found the husband/victim more responsible for the incident than did male participants (p<.03). But, both male and female participants assigned identical husband/victim responsibility ratings when the wife/defendant was Black, but women assigned a much higher husband/victim responsibility rating than did men when the wife/defendant was White.

As the researchers looked into why this was, what they determined was that participants felt the Black (wife) defendant had fewer options available to her than the White defendant and they saw the White defendant as being in greater control of her actions than the Black defendant. They also point to the fact that their participants were largely White and the female participants may have identified more with the White defendant/wife.

Finally, there were other findings about the gender of the participant jurors: women were more likely to believe the wife’s/defendants’s life was in danger, that she was trapped in her relationship and that her claims were more plausible than men participants believed. Women also were less likely to believe the wife/defendant had other options available to her and that the defendant was less in control of her actions than men believed.

The researchers had expected the Black (female) defendant would be treated more harshly than the White (female) defendant and they express some surprise that this was not the case. They explain the finding by saying that despite the participants being primarily White, they were aware that a Black female victim of domestic violence will not have options available to her that a White female victim would have available.

“Poverty is disproportionately high among Blacks in the US and thus, Black women with limited finances may lack other options and remain in abusive relationships for economic reasons.”

In other words, say the researchers, the Black (female) defendant may have had no other option to remove herself from her circumstances and so the participants thought it reasonable for her to take lethal action against her husband. The researchers also discuss prior research that says women are more punitive than men in domestic violence cases. They think it important to explore this in future research since their study found the opposite pattern.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this study is troubling but it is based on one relatively small sample and was conducted using a written trial transcript of 23 pages. That is quite lengthy and the researchers do not report the length of time it took participants to complete the experiment. However, the pattern of results is the opposite of what has been found in prior research and that makes it tough to figure out whether men or women would be better jurors in this sort of case.

Fortunately, we don’t advocate making jury selection decisions on the basis of gender or other demographics. As always, experiences, attitudes, values and beliefs will be more important than gender alone. If you have a domestic violence case, those with experiences related to the facts of the case or those with strong beliefs related to the facts of the case are going to be the ones to question carefully.

Mossiere, A., Maeder, E., & Pica, E. (2016). Racial Composition of Couples in Battered Spouse Syndrome Cases: A Look at Juror Perceptions and Decisions Journal of Interpersonal Violence DOI: 10.1177/0886260516632355

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