Convicts with Untrustworthy, Aggressive Faces more Likely to Get Death Penalty

Aug 4, 2015

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

By Stephen L. Macknik

Illusory perception pervades every aspect of life, including, unfortunately, courts of law, where decisions are meant to be blind and unbiased. Studies of bias in legal decisions have begun to reveal the alarming inability of jurists to judge fairly when influenced by certain uncontrolled, extraneous conditions. For example, a study in 2011 showed that parole boards are less likely to grant clemency when making their judgments on an empty stomach.

One way to better understand legal bias would be to analyze how convicts’ appearance influences their sentencing, and a new study published in Psychological Science, by John Paul Wilson and Nicholas O. Rule of the University of Toronto, does just that. The researchers examined the sentencing of convicted murderers as a function of the trustworthiness of their faces. Specifically, they looked at whether or not the trustworthiness of each convict’s face could be used to predict whether the person was sentenced to either death or life-imprisonment.

It’s important to note that the facial appearance of trustworthiness is not a measure of actual trustworthiness, but scientists have shown that people tend to agree with one another in their assessment of individual faces. Therefore trustworthiness is a reliable and agreed upon feature of human facial processing, even if it’s not necessarily indicative of actual trustworthiness, and it’s a fair and important question as to whether criminal sentencing is affected by how defendants look.

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12 comments on “Convicts with Untrustworthy, Aggressive Faces more Likely to Get Death Penalty

  • This is only an issue because America still has state sanctioned murder. The death penalty has no affect on crime, it just massages the revenge nerve in the “Eye for an Eye” crowd.

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  • Thankless task for this jury.

    I spent 31 years in the legal system. I’m not a fan of the Magna Carta British jury model for determining guilt. Or in the case you cite, ordinary citizens having to decide whether to kill someone. If a state wants to execute someone, then a representative of that state should make the decision. They should not do a Pontius Pilate and keep the decision at arms length. “No blood on my hands. The jury decided.”

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  • The researchers found that even among convicts who were later shown to be innocent, those who appeared less trustworthy were more likely to be sentenced to death. This shows that facial trustworthiness is not a fair measure of guilt, because these guys were all innocent and trustworthiness was therefore irrelevant. It follows that the courts are unfairly sentencing convicts to death when they have untrustworthy faces.

    In the cases of these men sentenced to death but later exonerated by DNA evidence, the initial jurys’ verdicts themselves were not a fair measure of guilt. Among many other compelling reasons, because verdicts are reversible whereas executions are not, the death penalty should be abolished as a matter of logic and justice.

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  • If your country has such an medievil view on crime prevention it still sanctions the death penalty you shouldn’t be too surprised if that would include killing those who they don’t like the look of

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  • I was once told by a copper who was in the court at the time that the reason I’d been found guilty of a driving offence was that I’d been too honest!

    In reality, the biggest villains are often the most charming; everyone would see them coming otherwise.

    But come on, some people just look dead guilty, don’t they.

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  • There is no “perfect” system of justice currently available to us. Dictatorial judges or democratic juries: both can be swayed emotionally (read “Papillon” his account of his trial – the jury at the mercy of their prejudices and the charm of the lawyers).
    Perhaps the best argument for Trial by Jury, is that it takes so long that initial emotionalism may be tempered by more sober reflection. My view is so jaundiced that I now assume any guilty party to be not-guilty and vice versa. There are far too many people released after years on the discovery of a “miscarriage of justice” and now I even wonder whether those may not have “done it” after all and that the poor innocent sods still remain in jail.
    The “Dictatorial” Judge is best summed up by Lord Denning bemoaning that the Birmingham 6 IRA bombers should have been executed and thus avoided the fuss and embarrassment to the establishment by the later finding of “Miscarriage….”

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  • The representativeness bias plays a major part in heuristic decision making. human cognition tends to judge potential behavioural traits like honesty, friendliness, trustworthiness etc from physical attributes like jaw line, eyes, smile face symmetry and the like even though a rational mind knows they are not related. Human advancement depends a lot on collaboration and the bias is an evolutionary adaptation from the need to make rapid assessments of collaboration or hostility.

    Recently in the UK there was a road rage stabbing and in my minds eye I imagined the culprit to be thick set, aggressive looking, close shaved head, unshaven with some tattoos and when his image appeared on the TV he was lean, clean, with a good mop of hair and looked like the nerdy kid next door. Made a quick note of my surprise!

    The thing is if you walked the streets and night and met him or the other character I’ve just described who would you instinctively think was most likely to be a threat? Be honest!

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  • Stafford Gordon
    Aug 5, 2015 at 11:52 am

    But come on, some people just look dead guilty, don’t they.

    Some miscarriages of justice occur because the accused arouse suspicion, because they are lying and covering up for some other crime or activity unrelated to the one of which they are accused.

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