Jurors may be biased against fathers in child sex abuse trials

Accused fathers in child sex abuse trials have the odds stacked against them, a new study suggests. Monica McCoy of Converse College and Jennifer Gray of the University of Wyoming found that with all other circumstances and evidence held equal, people are more likely to judge a father guilty than a mother. However the same gender bias wasn’t found to apply when the suspect was a stranger to the alleged victim.

A community sample of 256 adults in South Carolina read a 6-page fictional account of a court case involving the alleged serious sexual assault of a ten-year-old girl. The report described the cross-examinations of the alleged victim, the suspect, a witness for the defence and a witness for the prosecution. All participants read an identical account but for one exception – the suspect was described as either the alleged victim’s father, mother, a female stranger or a male stranger. After reading the account, the participants had to say whether they believed the suspect was guilty or not.

Both male and female participants were significantly more likely to find a father guilty than a mother (47 per cent of fathers vs. 24 per cent of mothers were judged guilty), but this gender bias didn’t extend to suspects who were unrelated to the victim. Overall, the female participants were no more likely to return a guilty verdict than the male participants, but they did tend to rate the victim as more believable and the defendant as less believable.

This is the latest of many studies to investigate juror biases, with earlier research suggesting, for example, that jurors are more inclined to believe confident witnesses (unless they make an error), and are less likely to hand down the death penalty to suspects who appear remorseful.

McCoy, M.L. & Gray, J.M. (2007). The impact of defendant gender and relationship to victim on juror decisions in a child sexual abuse case. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 1578-1593.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.