Individuals who are deemed to have untrustworthy faces are significantly more likely to be on death row compared with other people convicted of murder, according to a study published Wednesday in Psychological Science. Inmates thought to have trustworthy faces, however, have a higher chance of receiving the more lenient punishment of life in prison.
“Facial trustworthiness is a significant predictor of the sentence people receive,” says John Paul Wilson, who led the study and is a social psychologist at the University of Toronto.
They got lots of mugshots of those convicted of Murder in Florida, and got large numbers of people to rate those photographed as “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy.” Sue enough, those judged to have trustworthy faces were more likely to have been sentenced to other than death. To see if those with more heinous crimes/backgrounds were just more likely to have “untrustworthy faces” the researchers then got photos from the Innocence Project of people who had been exonerated. As the study abstract reported.
“[W]e found that the link between trustworthiness and the death sentence occurred even when participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after originally being sentenced to death.”
While death penalty outcomes are surely highly likely to be related to perceptions of character, many other decisions made by fact finders are also likely to be subject to the same kind of bias. We believe those we think are trustworthy.
How would we try to deal with this? Do jurors need special training in avoiding summary conclusions? Should attorneys we allowed to make arguments using this kind of research?
And, what about self-represented litigants, who are seen most directly by fact finders and judges, and who do not receive the benefit of the implicit “vouching” that those with clients receive?
Note: Florida is very unusual in that in its death penalty procedure the jury recommendation is only that, and the judge makes the final decision. Moreover, the jury makes its recommendation by majority vote, not unanimity. We are told that the judge rarely does other than follow the majority vote. Its really speculative to try to figure out the impact of this proedure on results. (It may also be that Innocence Poject photos may be from more than Florida.)