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Mosaic or melting pot? Race and juror decision making in Canada and the United States

Maeder, E.M., McManus, L.A. (2020)

Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 1 – 22


This study investigated the impact of race in jury decision making by assessing the influence of defendant race on Canadian and American participants’ verdicts in an assault trial. The study also examined mock jurors’ attributions of the defendant’s behavior and their perceptions of the cultural criminal stereotype for each racial group. Results demonstrated that although verdicts did not significantly differ as a function of defendant race or country, stability and control attributions did vary between Canadian and American participants, as did racial stereotypes. In addition, defendant race affected internal versus external attributions, regardless of country.

Expanded Abstract:

Both Canada and the U.S. experience a dramatic overrepresentation of certain racial groups in the criminal justice system. For example, in the United States, Black persons comprise 37.9% of the federally incarcerated population (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2016), but only 13.3% of the general population (United States Census Bureau, 2016). Native Americans are also overrepresented, comprising 2.1% of the federal prison population (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2016) and 1.2% of the general population (United States Census Bureau, 2016). Among the primary contributors to these statistics is the existence of racial bias in jurors.

Two potential moderators of the effects of defendant race on verdict are attributions and stereotypes. Attributions are causal ascriptions for events (Heider, 1958; Ross, 1977; Weiner, 1985). Research has shown that people who ascribe the cause of an individual’s action to internal, controllable factors also assign more responsibility to that individual (Weiner, 1985). Studies have shown that people are more likely to assign internal/stable/controllable causes to outgroup members’ behavior (e.g., Chatman & Von Hippel, 2001; Taylor & Jaggi, 1974), and some research has extended this to the courtroom context (Jones & Kaplan, 2003; Yamamoto & Maeder, 2017). Stereotypes may also moderate the influence of defendant race on verdict, as research has consistently demonstrated that Black persons are stereotypically associated with violence in both the United States (e.g., Devine, 1989) and Canada (e.g., Henry et al., 1996).

Overall, findings from the study suggest that Canadian and American prospective jurors may be more similar than they are different, at least in terms of the influence of defendant race. Arguably, our most interesting finding concerned attributions, in that American participants attributed more stability and control to the defendant regardless of race. This suggests that U.S. prospective jurors may be more likely to see offenders as “bad apples,” which may have implications for instances in which they have some voice in sentencing decisions (e.g., capital trials).