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What’s in a Face?… Maybe a Harsher Sentence

Our society upholds the ethos that justice is blind, that no matter who you are and what you look like the correct and just verdict will be handed down based on the offense committed, the substantial advocacy and defense by an effective attorney, and the deliberations of a whole jury panel of our peers. However, a study recently conducted analyzing 700 mugshots of white and African-American criminals recently showed that a face could be the ultimate decider of whether the defendant gets a verdict of life in prison or the death penalty.

Psychological Science Study Published: Shows Facial Appearance Impacts Verdict

According to the study, which was published recently in Psychological Science, faces that were deemed to be less trustworthy were more likely to get a harsher punishment. The study was conducted by using a database of photos of criminals that were currently in the Florida criminal system. Florida was an ideal location for the experiment not only for the extensive archive of photos of criminals within the system, but also because Florida is one of the states that regularly enforces the death penalty, which is now defunct in numerous other states.

How the Study was Conducted

The 200 study participants reviewed 700 mugshots of criminals who were white and African Americans, all of whom had facial expressions that ranged from scowls to blank stares to smiles. The study participants had to rate the faces on a scale of 1 to 8, where 1 was deemed to be the most untrustworthy and 8 was very trustworthy. The study participants knew that they were criminals because they were all in the prison inmate uniform, but the participants were not made aware of the crime that was committed and the sentence that was applied to each person.

The Findings of the Study

The findings of the study showed that those inmates who had in reality received the death sentence were perceived by study participants to be less trustworthy (remember: study participants did not know who received what sentence) than those inmates who had actually received life in prison sentences, thus reinforcing the inherent sentencing biases that are rampant in the criminal justice system. Facial appearance was an influential factor when determining the severity of the sentence that would be applied to the person and the study participants seemed to correctly match the perceived trustworthiness level of the inmate to his sentence.

The Follow-Up Study: Trustworthiness Still In Question Even After Exoneration

The follow-up study found that even when the inmates had been sentenced but later exonerated and were in fact innocent, the inmates’ perceived trustworthiness was still in question, even though they had been found to be ultimately innocent, putting forth more adamantly that even in the face of the truth, trustworthiness was based on facial appearances of the inmates rather than the actual facts surrounding the issues.

Is There a Positive Outcome to This Study?

Though perceived trustworthiness is opinion- and bias-motivated, it does not mean that there is no way to resolve the biases rampant in the system. Having juries be made aware of their internal judgment system and the effect that an internal bias may have on the outcome of a case may have an effect on how quickly they jump to conclusions. Being made aware of any bias and the effect it may have on his/her ability to act as a member of a jury may provide a moment of self-reflection where the juror can consider if he/she feels a certain way because of inherent bias or if it is backed by some evidentiary support. In due time, we might see the results of this study helping to eradicate the problem, rather than exacerbate it.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a criminal offense, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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