The Oscar Pistorius Trial: Psychologists predict how a jury would decide. South Africa does not have jury trials but celebrities face juries elsewhere in the world and who is to say the processes involved might not affect judges?
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm
‘Are Celebrities Charged with Murder Likely to be Acquitted?’ is the title of a unique psychology experiment, inspired by boasts of a famous US lawyer, Eric Dubin, who claimed practically unbeatable court room strategies for representing celebrities, accused of committing serious crimes.
Dubin helped win in 2005 a 30 million dollar jury verdict in the Wrongful Death lawsuit against actor Robert Blake, accused of murdering his wife. Blake, had become famous, ironically enough, for his TV portrayal of Tony Baretta, an undercover police detective.
The psychologists who conducted the experiment on celebrities in court, Maria Wong, Michael Murtagh, Alan Goodboy, Amy Hackney and Lynn McCutcheon, were partly inspired by Dubin. His book on this subject: ‘The star chamber: How celebrities go free and their lawyers become famous’, argued psychology was crucial in verdicts from trials of celebrities.
The initial acquittals of Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson of serious crimes, seemed to support some of Dubin’s stratagems, leading to the current study, published in the ‘North American Journal of Psychology’.
For example, Dubin advised celebrity defendant’s not to take the stand and face cross-examination. But psychologist Maria Wong and colleagues wondered if this wasn’t odd counsel, as previous studies find that when non-famous defendants “take the Fifth”, they are usually perceived as more likely to be guilty.
Jurors seem to conclude such defendants must have something to hide.
Dubin however argues in a Machiavellian psychological strategy that when a celebrity is the defendant, juries will conclude it was the high-powered lawyers who advised him not to take the stand. According to Dubin, this strategy forces a jury to confront convicting a beloved celebrity without hearing a personal response to the vital question: ‘Did you do it?'”
So a celebrity’s public persona and their body of work remains most prominent in the jury’s psyche. The jury then makes a decision based on their judgement of character from previous flattering portrayals in the media.
In the case of Oscar Pistorius, a national hero in South Africa, this argument is particularly apposite. Dubin’s formula for celebrity acquittal includes getting the defence version publicised via the media, ensuring antagonistic witnesses are discredited, and blaming the police, for amongst other failings, fame seeking via taking advantage of the celebrity. Given recent developments in the Oscar Pistorius case, some of these machinations might already be in play.
To test whether Dubin is right, that celebrities deploying the right psychological strategies are more likely to get off from serious crimes, Dr Maria Wong and colleagues developed a trial transcript based on a real murder case. In one version, the defendant is described as a famous movie star; in another he is a televangelist. In the third, an office worker. Otherwise the transcripts are identical.
All participants read one of three versions of California v. Smith, a transcript based on a real trial. It was chosen because the defendant was charged with murder of a spouse (again particularly apposite in the Oscar Pistorius case).
The original transcript was altered in order to present aspects of Dubin’s tactics. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three defendant occupation conditions (movie star, televangelist, or office worker). Immediately after reading California v. Smith participants responded to questions about the verdict they would give.
Overall, participants were more likely to give a guilty verdict to a movie star than to a non-movie star defendant. But, a deeper analysis of the data finds high scorers on a celebrity worshipping scale were less likely to reach “guilty” verdicts when the defendant was a movie star and were significantly less confident that the movie star was guilty.
These findings, the authors argue, confirm the importance of attitudes toward celebrities in determining even important decisions, such as guilt of a serious crime. The fact that the movie star was, over all more likely to be convicted in this study compared to the less famous, despite identical evidence, could mean the tide of publicity surrounding recent trials of celebrities, which happened before the research, could have impacted the sample of students used in the study, and created a ‘backlash’.
This suggests that when a celebrity is on trial, how the fame is handled by the lawyers could have as much, or more impact on the verdict, as how the evidence is presented.
In certain circumstances celebrities might suffer a disadvantage in court, but the key point from this research is the aura of fame is penetrating supposedly dispassionate deliberations, possibly beneath conscious awareness.
The authors of the study conclude if the Dubin defence “works,” it’s in fact because celebrity defendants are rich, not because they are famous. Being wealthy means they can hire expensive and possibly better lawyers.
The psychologists were surprised that the movie star defendant didn’t do better before the mock jurors, but they wonder if they levelled the playing field too much, because all three defendants in the experiment had equal access to highly skilled, expensive legal talent, an advantage usually held only by the wealthy.
But the Oscar Pistorius case doesn’t just have celebrity as a key factor. In a country like South Africa, race probably plays a role, as it was theorised it did in OJ Simpson’s and Michael Jackson’s cases in the USA.
Psychologists Jennifer Knight, Traci Giuliano, and Monica Sanchez-Ross from Southwestern University USA, investigated the influence of celebrity status and its potential interaction with race in a similar experiment, where participants read a fictitious newspaper account of an alleged rape that varied the defendant’s race (Black or White) and celebrity status (famous or non-famous).
In the study entitled ‘Famous or Infamous? The Influence of Celebrity Status and Race on Perceptions of Responsibility for Rape’, participants were then asked to make judgments. Being a celebrity held distinct advantages for White defendants, whereas for Black defendants, being a celebrity was a liability.
The study pubished in the journal ‘Basic and Applied Social Psychology’ argues this apparent backlash against Black celebrities, in the USA, is consistent with a theory that although most people today are not openly racist, prejudice still rears up in particular situations. White participants in the experiment were not more punitive toward Black non-celebrities than toward White non-celebrities, but clearly took racial revenge when the black person accused was a celebrity.
The authors of the study suggest lawyers representing a White celebrity client in a country like the USA, should emphasize the fame of their client to induce the ‘star-struck’ phenomenon in jurors. By contrast, lawyers representing a Black celebrity should minimize the fame and status of their client, portraying their defendant as a “regular, ordinary citizen.”
Knight and colleagues conclude the former technique seems to have been effectively used to win an acquittal by William Kennedy Smith’s defence lawyers – who highlighted his powerful and wealthy family – including a U.S. president and U.S. senator. Conversely, OJ Simpson’s ‘dream team’ of lawyers emphasized his race, to the predominantly Black jury.
Research suggests that race rather than celebrity status likely influenced his verdict.
The authors point out, however, that when overwhelming evidence is presented, jurors tend to decide on this, not prior prejudices. But when a trial involves ambiguous evidence and circumstances, rather than the indisputable, jurors seem to fall back on impressions created through attractiveness, class, race and celebrity status.
It would seem that in the Oscar Pistorius case so far, the evidence emerging appears ambiguous, in which case, should a jury be involved, psychology is going to determine the verdict.