Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Intellectual competence of juvenile defendants: Does it influence jurors?

Does the intellectual competence of juvenile defendants influence the decisions of juries? The following article, via the use of mock trail methodology, attempted to answer this question.

Najdowski, C., Bottoms, B, & Vargas, M. (2009). Jurors’ Perceptions of Juvenile Defendants: The Influence of Intellectual Disability, Abuse History, and Confession Evidencey. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 27, 401–430. (click here to view/read entire article)


Understanding jurors’ perceptions of juvenile defendants has become increasingly important as more and more juvenile cases are being tried in adult criminal court rather than family or juvenile court. Intellectual disability and child maltreatment are overrepresented among juvenile delinquents, and juveniles (particularly disabled juveniles) are at heightened risk for falsely confessing to crimes. In two mock trial experiments, we examined the effects of disability, abuse history, and confession evidence on jurors’ perceptions of a juvenile defendant across several different crime scenarios. Abused juveniles were treated more leniently than nonabused juveniles only when the juvenile’s crime was motivated by self-defense against the abuser. Jurors used disability as a mitigating factor, making more lenient judgments for a disabled than a nondisabled juvenile. Jurors also completely discounted a coerced confession for a disabled juvenile, but not for a nondisabled juvenile. In fact, compared with when it was portrayed juvenile’s policy and directions for future research are discussed.
Article highlights
  • According to the authors, 7 % of juveniles in the justice system are referred directly to criminal court, and often face a jury.
  • According to research cited by the authors "juveniles in the legal system are especially likely to be intellectually disabled...or have a history of child maltreatment...and they are at heightened risk for falsely confessing to crimes they did not commit." As a result, the authors conducted this study to "understand the influence of these variables on jurors’ perceptions of juvenile defendants. In two studies, we used a mock trial paradigm to examine jurors’ perceptions and judgments in criminal cases involving a juvenile defendant. In Study 1, we examined the influence of a juvenile’s history of childhood abuse and intellectual disability; in Study 2, we continued our examination of intellectual disability, but also studied the influence of a juvenile’s confession on jurors’ perceptions and judgments."
  • The importance of this research, according to the authors, is captured in the follow passage: "Approximately one-fourth of proven false confessors are intellectually disabled adults or juveniles (Drizin & Leo, 2004; Leo & Ofshe, 1998). Intellectually disabled juveniles may not be competent to make decisions about confessing (i.e. to truthfully confess or not confess to a crime committed, or to falsely confess or not confess to a crime not committed) because of comprehension and reasoning impairments (see, e.g., Goldstein, Kalbeitzer, Zelle, & Romaine, 2006) and heightened suggestibility—they are more vulnerable than nondisabled juveniles to even subtle psychological influence, persuasion, deception, and coercion (Clare & Gudjonsson, 1993; Gudjonsson & Henry, 2003; Henry & Gudjonsson, 1999; Milne, Clare, & Bull, 2002; Young, Powell, & Dudgeon, 2003; but see Henry & Gudjonsson, 2003). In light of evidence that police often use the same coercive interrogation strategies with children and youth as they do with adults (Meyer & Reppucci, 2007), there is substantial cause for concern that innocent disabled juveniles are at risk for falsely confessing to crimes they did not commit. Jurors are strongly biased to perceive adults’ confessions as true (Kassin, 2005; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004), and they convict adults who confess under coercive circumstances just as often as adults who confess voluntarily (see, e.g., Kassin & McNall, 1991; Kassin & Sukel, 1997)."
  • Apparently little research has examined the influence of perception of intellectual disability on jurors decisions. Of the limited research available, "results supported the researchers’ theory that jurors consider an intellectually disabled victim (like a young child) as more honest and less cognitively able to fabricate false accusations than a victim of average intelligence."
  • Based on research with adult defendants, the authors note that "most jurors (71%) reported that they were or would have been less likely to vote for the death penalty if the defendant was mentally retarded." The hypothesis is that an intellectually disabled adult is viewed as "less cognitively and criminally sophisticated than a nondisabled adult, and therefore less capable of planning and completing complex crimes such as burglary and assault but competent to commit a less complex crime like vandalism."
  • These findings have been explained by the patronization effect..."a tendency for people to attribute disabled adults’ behavior to external rather than internal factors and attribute less responsibility to disabled compared with nondisabled individuals, presumably driven by beliefs that disabled individuals are incompetent and have little control over their own lives." The patronization effect is believed to be based on the discounting principle, "whereby people discount possible internal causes for behavior when a more plausible external cause exists; in this case, intellectual disability may signal jurors to search for alternative external explanations."
  • To examine whether such effects would extend to cases involving juvenile defendants, these researchers conducted two related mock trial studies that varied the type of crime and whether a juvenile defendant was intellectually disabled.
Based on the two studies, the author offered the following conclusion:
In conclusion, we have applied social psychological theories and methods to investigate legally relevant questions about jurors’ reactions to cases involving youthful defendants. Our work shows that intellectual disability, a history of child maltreatment, and circumstances surrounding confession all influence jurors’ judgments. Future research should build on our initial findings, by testing similar variables under more ecologically valid conditions and by expanding our work to other variables present in the unique situation of criminal trials involving juvenile defendants. Such research is important for research psychologists interested in testing theories related to legal decision making, but it is also important for applied, practical reasons. Professionals within the legal system need to understand how jurors react to juveniles accused of crimes and how they reach their verdicts in cases involving juveniles. Such increased understanding has the potential to lead to change, change that can help ensure fairness for some of the most vulnerable defendants in our legal system.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,