Centre professor-student team wins first place at American Society of Trial Consultants conference

Posted by Centre News in News, Psychology, Research 25 Jul 2014

hamilton_mykolStudent-faculty collaboration is a cornerstone of a Centre College education, and it’s not uncommon for these collaborations to receive national recognition. Stodghill Professor of Psychology Mykol Hamilton and Hillary Moore ’15 recently returned from the national conference of the American Society of Trial Consultants, where they won first place for their research presentation on bias in juries.

Their project, entitled “The Prevalence of ‘Prehabilitation’ in Voir Dire: How Judges and Attorneys Inadvertently Lead Prospective Jurors to Hide Their Biases,” focuses primarily on a practice Hamilton discovered that she calls premature rehabilitation, or “prehabilitation” for short. This phenomenon occurs when a judge (and often attorneys) use certain language and phraseology to coerce a juror into claiming to be objective before even admitting any bias. As a result, biased jurors can’t be excused since they never reveal their biases, and an impartial jury can’t be seated.

“There’s a lot of pressure for people [up for jury duty] to say ‘Oh no, I know he’s innocent until proven guilty. I’ve heard some things, but I can be completely fair and impartial’—particularly if it’s a heavily publicized or sensationalized trial,” explains Hamilton.

Hamilton had already noticed in local cases that judges and attorneys often prematurely attempt to coax a juror into being objective, without even knowing if any bias exists in the juror or not. This is even more detrimental to a case, claims Hamilton, because judges and attorneys use this practice intentionally or unintentionally to “scare” or “bully” a juror into claiming objectivity, making it difficult to detect any bias.

Hamilton’s primary objective for the research was to find out if prehabilitation is a nationwide phenomenon. Hamilton and students Emily Lindon ’14, Maddie Pitt ’14, Emily Robbins ’14, Leah Storch ’14 and Moore examined 11 cases nationwide ranging from Kentucky to New York to Colorado, and even one in Canada.

What Hamilton and her student researchers found was that 100% of the jurors received some form of prehabilitation by 100% of the judges. Hamilton warns that while this doesn’t definitively prove that prehabiliation is a nationwide practice, it certainly is an alarming result.

In addition to gathering this national data, Hamilton ran experiments from 2011 to 2013 to determine if prehabilitation was indeed harmful to creating a fair jury. The experiment had two actors playing the part of judge and attorney and they would deliver two different scenarios to potential jurors: one where they attempted to prematurely rehabilitate a juror, and another where a juror was gently probed for any bias.

“The ‘bullying’ came in like this: judges would give a little speech where they would say, ‘OK, this is the part where we try to find out if you are able to be objective. Do you have the ability to be completely fair? Because it is your duty to be a completely objective juror,'” says Hamilton. “What juror is going to say no? ‘No, I won’t do my duty? No, I can’t be objective?’ No one wants to be made to look like a fool, and that’s what prehabilitation does.

“We found that a lot more people were willing to admit bias when we asked them in a gentler way rather than bombarding them with talk of their ‘duty to be objective,’” reports Hamilton.

Hamilton and Moore presented their research in a poster session with several other faculty-student teams at the national conference. Ultimately, Hamilton and Moore walked away with first place. According to Hamilton, Moore was the only undergraduate presenting at the conference; professors and graduate students presented all other research.

Hamilton recently summarized their research and submitted it to The Jury Expert, a journal published by the American Society of Trial Consultants, and says the work should appear in the August issue.

by John Ross Wyatt ’15

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