Are all witnesses equal, or are some given more attention because of how they sound, and look? In new, highly topical research, Lara Frumkin and Anna Stone used mock witness statements and showed they are received differently depending on the witness’s accent, age – and race.
Is justice blind? Criminal trials should be based on the facts of an incident, including what witnesses see and hear during the event and report to the police and in court. However, there are many factors, sometimes referred to as extralegal factors, that influence the way a defendant is perceived and subsequently rated in a courtroom, at times influencing the decisions of conviction and acquittal. An argument might be made that extralegal factors could have some bearing on the defendant as that person is being tried in the court, even though it should be the facts of the case and not specifics about the person.
But what about an eyewitness or earwitness? They are people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in them witnessing a crime. Other than light they can shed on what was said or heard, they should not be involved in the case. So, what they sound like should not make a difference to their testimony.
Unfortunately, evidence shows that this is not the case and witness statements are not rated on their content alone. Research by Lara Frumkin and Anna Stone shows that the way witnesses speak when giving a statement about a mock crime influences how favourably they are rated. Their study looked at a standard British accent compared with a lower status British accent and found that those with the standard accent were perceived more favourably than those who spoke with a lower status accent.
Their findings also showed that race plays a role in how favourably witnesses are perceived. Black witnesses were rated less well than white witnesses; this finding was particularly pronounced when the Black witness was in his 50s compared to one in his 20s.
In addition to the witness, the race of the person listening to the testimony may play a role in how the testimony is perceived. This study showed that black listeners rated the black witnesses who speak with lower status British accents less well than they rated black witnesses with standard British accents or the white witnesses irrespective of accent status. The findings are in line with research showing that people rate those from their own groups less well if they are seen to “let their group down”in terms of perceived social status.
This research shows that justice is indeed not blind and instead, the way someone speaks, even when it is not the person being judged, can affect witness ratings. People working on criminal trials should be made aware of the potential bias that extralegal factors such as accent, race and age have on judgements of witnesses.
Frumkin, Lara A. and Stone, Anna (2020). Not all eyewitnesses are equal: Accent status, race and age interact to influence evaluations of testimony. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice 18(2): 123-145.
The full paper can be accessed https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15377938.2020.1727806or on ORO http://oro.open.ac.uk/69325/
Lara A Frumkin is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University in the UK.
Anna Stone is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East London in the UK.
You can read more about Lara Frumkin here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/lf5735