April 15, 2008

Prominent expert testifies about juror bias

In the United States, African Americans are strongly associated with criminality. Research is accumulating to suggest that this largely unconscious association has a profound effect on criminal justice policies and practices, including jury decision-making.

A few months ago, I posted about research showing that making jurors aware of unconscious bias can increase their open-mindedness and thoughtfulness during deliberations. Now, attorneys in a New Hampshire death penalty case are going a step further, calling one of the nation's best-known social psychologists to testify about unconscious prejudice against African Americans.

Mahzarin R. Banaji, a brilliant and elegant speaker, testified for the first time in her life yesterday at a pretrial hearing for Michael Addison, a black man charged in the killing of white police officer Michael Briggs. Banaji, an authority on the well-known Implicit Association Test, testified as though giving one of her lectures to Harvard psychology students, standing in the witness box and using a laser pointer to highlight her data.

The question on the judge's mind is whether a Black defendant can get a fair trial in New Hampshire, given the state's largely white population.

Banaji's answer: "The likelihood of a fair trial here is abysmally low based on social science."

Defense attorneys are hoping the judge accepts Banaji's evidence and strikes the death penalty against Addison, whose trial is set to start this fall.

But using the Implicit Association Test as evidence of racial bias is controversial, with critics charging that there is insufficient research into the test's accuracy or precisely what it measures. The point-counterpoint controversy is featured in today's Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately, I think the article is available only via subscription).

Whatever the outcome of this week's hearing, the topic of unconscious racial animus will likely get more play in court in upcoming months and years. Indeed, scholars associated with a new MacArthur Foundation-funded project on law and neuroscience are looking into doing some proactive training, to teach jurors how bias works and how to counter it in their deliberations.

The Concord Monitor has coverage of the Addison case. TV station WMUR-9 in New Hampshire has a series of online videos of court hearings. Stanford scholar Jennifer Eberhardt's research on race and crime is available here. The Implicit Association Test can be taken online. See my related posts, here and here, or browse through my "race" or "juries" topics, for more information and links.

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