Hamilton’s jury selection research receives increasing attention

Posted by Centre News in News, Psychology 22 Aug 2016

gavelCentre College faculty members are recognized for excellence in teaching and a commitment to their students, but many also serve as experts in their field, bringing their knowledge and skills to bear on issues and problems that impact society.

hamiltonOver the last decade, Centre’s Stodghill Professor of Psychology Mykol Hamilton has devoted much of her research to the social psychology of the jury selection process, and she has increasingly been called to serve as a legal consultant and expert witness in high profile criminal cases.

Her expertise has also been sought by journalists covering high profile trials, and her comments related to the ongoing “Bridgegate” trial involving aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been published widely.

Her contributions to the field have also led to her recent appointment as research director for the American Society of Trial Consultants (ASTC) Foundation.

Hamilton’s examination of jury selection interviews, or voir dire, focuses primarily on the issue of jury bias. Lawyers and judges commonly engage in what is known as rehabilitation, the attempt to lead prospective jurors to put aside biases they admit to having. However, as Hamilton points out, “A lot of research shows that rehabilitation does not work very well. Sometimes it even backfires and increases people’s bias.”

Studies undertaken by Hamilton and her students at Centre have explored rehabilitation in a special context—in the early stages of voir dire, before prospective jurors have been questioned about their biases. The results of these studies suggest that early-stage rehabilitation is problematic. Hamilton initially called this phenomenon “premature rehabilitation,” a phrase she and two research assistants, James Melloan ’12 and Andrew Augustus ’11, shortened to “prehabilitation.” The newly coined term references the fact that prospective jurors often fail to reveal their biases at all.

In 2014, Hamilton partnered with Centre student Hillary Moore ’15 to present research on prehabilitation at ASTC’s annual national conference, and their project won first prize in the student research competition. The honor was even more distinctive because theirs was the only presentation co-authored by an undergraduate student; all others were by graduate students.

Afterward, three other students worked with Hamilton to write a journal article based on the study. The article, titled “The Ubiquitous Practice of ‘Prehabilitation’ Leads Prospective Jurors to Conceal Their Biases,” was published in The Jury Expert in August, 2014. The new concept of prehabilitation received wide attention and led to Hamilton giving seminars on the topic for bar associations across the state.

Last year, Hamilton collaborated with Kate Zephyrhawke of Hillsborough Community College to perform a study aimed at establishing best practices in bias-related portions of the voir dire process. Their work was awarded first prize in the faculty research division of the 2015 ASTC conference. In 2016, the two won first prize once again for a study on detecting bias by measuring people’s projection of their own biases onto the community.

On sabbatical until January 2017, Hamilton is currently directing the Peremptories Project for the ASTC Foundation, which is a series of studies aimed at testing the effectiveness of voir dire peremptory strikes of jurors by attorneys.

Hamilton is excited about the potential impact of her research on the justice system.

“I like to think my work with students and colleagues will help the justice system and keep people from being convicted unfairly or from receiving overly harsh sentences,” she says. “My hope is that it will make a difference in the world.”

by Laurie Pierce
August 22, 2016