New research performed at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney Australia supports the concern held by the Australian Law Reform Commission that admitting gruesome evidence, including gruesome pictures and descriptions, prejudices juries and makes them more likely to convict a defendant.
Researcher David Bright, a PhD student at UNSW, argues that gruesome evidence triggers unconscious emotional responses in jury members, such as anger and horror, and makes jury members make decisions based on wanting to punish the defendants. Gruesome evidence influences the jury members’ decisions by subconsciously influencing them to attribute more incriminating value to the evidence then their otherwise would be.
UNSW’s research shows that jurors are unaware of the extent to which their decisions are influenced by the emotions gruesome details provoke; they are unaware of how much the evidence prejudices the jurors against the defendant. The university’s research also shows that even presenting the evidence to the jury in a calm and deliberating manner does not prevent the emotional reactions and the prejudicial judgments. UNSW’s research suggests that all gruesome evidence in the form of photographs or graphic descriptions should be omitted from court proceedings.
Presently, the Australian courts are very unlikely to exclude gruesome evidence under Australian statutory and common law. UNSW researchers David Bright and Dr. Jane Goodman-Delahunty reviewed previous cases to learn that presently judges are unlikely to rule that gruesome details be excluded from the trial proceedings and presently admit post-mortem photographs. Their research showed that there have been several instances in which the courts considered excluding gruesome post-mortem photographs, the judge ruled that the evidence the pictures supplied was stronger than any prejudicial impact the pictures may have on the jury.
In 1998, in the criminal case R. vs. Bowhay, Justice Dunford even went so far as to argue that, “In this day and age where people see ‘blood and guts’ on the television and on the movie screen day after day and week after week, I fail to see how it could be expected the jury would misuse this evidence.”
UNSW’s research into the prejudicial impact gruesome evidence has on jurors began in 2004. The researchers asked 68 third-year UNSW psychology students to read a transcript of a hypothetical trial in which the defendant had been charged with murdering his wife. The researchers divided the participants into two groups, one group in which gruesome evidence was supplied and another group in which non-gruesome evidence was supplied.
For the candidates receiving non-gruesome evidence, the candidates were merely told that the victim had been stabbed in the chest. The candidates who were receiving gruesome evidence were told that the victim had been “‘brutally tortured’ for over 30 minutes,” receiving various stabs all over her body and having had her face obliterated beyond recognition. The candidates were also told that the victim was almost decapitated after death.
After the candidates had read the witness examinations by both the prosecution and the defense they also read the same instructions judges administer to jurors in similar cases including the role of the juror, the elements that identify murder as a crime, and the definition of reasonable doubt. The candidates, or mock jurors, then made their rulings. The mock jurors even reviewed all of the evidence more than twice. What the researchers saw is that 34.4 percent of the candidates who reviewed the gruesome evidence ruled the defendant guilty, as opposed to 13.9 percent of the candidates who had not reviewed the gruesome evidence.
In 2006 a similar study was performed in which a group of mock jurors were shown gruesome photographs while another group was not. The group who reviewed the gruesome photographs reported having more severe emotional responses, such as feeling anger towards the defendant, than the groups who did not review the photographs. Also, 41.2 percent of mock jurors who had been shown gruesome photographs convicted the defendant as opposed to the 38. 2 percent who had been shown neutral photographs. Further more, only 8.8 percent of mock jurors convicted the defendant after not being shown any photographic evidence at all.
A further study in 2006 proved that jurors who receive photographic evidence, either neutral or gruesome, put incriminating value on the photographs and are far more likely to convict the defendant.
UNSW’s research proves that gruesome or graphic evidence can damage a defendant’s case and prejudice the jurors against the defendants by provoking irrational emotional responses.
David Bright, “Grisly court evidence makes juries more likely to convict,” University of New South Wales.