Centre News

Case closed: Hamilton and students conduct major study on jury selection

May 16, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger       
Prof. Mykol Hamilton Professor Mykol Hamilton (center) conducted a study on bias in
jury selection with students, including (from left) Hillary
Henize ’13 and Cadey Phipps ’13. “The research experience I’ve
had here has been an integral aspect of my education,” says

With 24-hour news cycles and constant media speculation, it seems almost impossible to keep bias out of criminal trials. However, a Centre professor and several students recently completed an important study examining how to do just that.

Mykol Hamilton, H.W. Stodghill Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Psychology, worked with Hillary Henize ’13, Cadey Phipps ’13 and Leah Storch ’14 this year on a major experiment looking at bias in jury selection.

The idea grew out of the ten murder cases on which Hamilton has been a consultant. Based on Hamilton's real-life observations and tested biased practices among judges and lawyers during jury selection, four hundred people were polled by phone to determine their bias against the defense in certain cases based on media coverage.

“In the telephone surveys, the professional callers asked questions that can get at bias, but the most important one was, ‘Do you believe so-and-so is innocent or guilty of this crime?’ I noticed that a lot of them said, ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ or ‘I can’t answer that,’” Hamilton says. “I started wondering if people think they’re supposed to say ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ even if they don’t think that at all.

“So I added a question: ‘If you had to say right now which way you lean, would you lean towards innocent or guilty?’” Hamilton continues. “With that question, another ten to fifteen percent would say ‘guilty.’ We wanted to figure out why that might be.”

Hamilton performed a change of venue survey for a local murder case in which Dr. Steven Hall was accused of murdering his wife in 2009. Those taking the survey were asked whether they thought Hall was guilty.

“Fifty-seven percent of those polled in Boyle County said they were biased against [Hall], but in jury selection, only 22 percent said they were,” says Henize. “Something about the process caused them to hide their biases.”

Hamilton and her students analyzed what happened in individual voir dire situations. Roughly translated to “say what you see” in French, voir dire refers to the process during which prospective jurors are asked about their potential biases. They began to notice that, during this process, judges were utilizing a technique Hamilton and her students called prehabilitation.

“Prehabilitation is a word we created to describe a judge trying to rid jurors of bias before the process has even started,” says Henize. “The judge would open interviews by saying, ‘This is the portion of the trial in which we seek to assess your competence as a prospective juror, and your ability to remain impartial. This is not easily done, but we require it.’ Even defense attorneys were doing prehabilitation—they would use similar phraseology, such as, ‘You seem like a really smart person, so you’ll be unbiased in the trial.’ What are you supposed to say?”

“This led us to believe that part of the reason jurors feel uncomfortable disclosing bias is that social desirability pressure makes them feel as if they have to temporarily hide their bias and say that they can be impartial,” Hamilton says.

The ensuing experiment was designed to show that using social desirability pressures during jury selection is harmful to the voir dire process.

“Our argument is that the legal purpose of voir dire jury selection is to identify jurors that actually are biased and eliminate them,” says Henize. “[Otherwise] they’re likely to end up on panels and take preconceived notions into the trial.”

To learn more about voir dire selection, Hamilton and her students designed a mock voir dire scenario in which a person would be questioned about their bias in a murder trial.

“We hired professional actors to play the roles of a judge, two attorneys and a defendant, and designed different versions of scripts for the actors. Each condition had varying degrees of social desirability pressure,” Henize says. “In one condition, the judge would use a prehabilitative introductory statement, but the following questions were neutral. In another, everything was neutral. In yet another, everything was prehabilitative. Additionally, we had a control condition in which they just answered opinion questions about the case in a paper and pencil format, but all the questions were neutral—as a way to establish what people's actual level of bias is in this case.”

The study was conducted in Old Centre to “avoid the sterility of a lab environment,” says Henize. Adds Hamilton, Old Centre also “made it more realistic, like an actual courtroom.”

The participants viewed media coverage from a murder trial in which a man was charged with murdering his wife.

“We exposed them to incriminating media coverage designed to simulate pre-trial coverage in actual cases,” Henize says.

When the participants moved on to the interview portion of the study, they were told that the defendant was an actor—but believed that everyone else present was not acting.

“They believed we were cooperating with the Kentucky Circuit Court and Kentucky Bar Association to do collaborative research,” Hamilton says. “Some came out of that room almost shaking—thinking that a real judge and attorneys were questioning them made them pretty nervous.”

The findings revealed that those in the prehabilitative interview conditions disclosed significantly less bias than those in the non-prehabilitative and control conditions.

“Interestingly, in the interview conditions, the prehabilitative introductory statement alone was enough to cause jurors to conceal bias,” says Hamilton. “Regardless of what types of questions were asked—neutral or prehabilitative—once the judge used social desirability, the damage was done. In the condition with the neutral introductory statement, they were significantly more likely to admit bias.”

To test the role of personality, the researchers had participants fill out the Marlowe-Crowne social desirability scale prior to the experiment. Hamilton and the students wanted to assess how likely the participants were to cave to the pressures of social desirability, and if the scores would correlate with a willingness to admit bias.

“Those scores did correlate with their answers, but only in the most extreme circumstances,” Henize says. “Essentially, your personality was only a factor when social desirability pressures were highest.”

With their findings being presented this month at the Association for Psychological Science Conference in Washington, D.C., Hamilton, Henize, and the other student collaborators, Cadey Phipps and Leah Storch, their findings to be considered by those whom they affect.

“We hope that this information can be used to educate the legal community at large as to how to improve voir dire practices so as to better expose juror bias,” Henize says.

As Henize graduates from Centre, she is glad to have been so involved with research at Centre.

“The research experience I’ve had here has been an integral aspect of my education. Having a faculty mentor who’s so supportive and wonderful has definitely been important in that process as well,” she says. “I’ve learned a great deal about how to think like a scientist, and I hope I can utilize those skills in graduate studies. I’m honored to be part of the process.”

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail elizabeth.trollinger@centre.edu with your feedback.

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