Dateline: December, 2010, Issue 2

How does a defendant's facial expression affect jury verdicts?

Criminal defendants can show a range of emotions during trial: remorse, anger, even no emotion at all.

MacLin and colleagues (2009) investigated whether a defendant's facial expression affects jurors' verdicts. Jurors in the research study were presented a real case that produced a manslaughter verdict, and which has reliably reproduced manslaughter verdicts in research. All jurors saw the same defendant, though they were shown and observed different expressions on the defendant's face. Some jurors saw a remorseful defendant; others saw an angry defendant; yet others saw a defendant with a "neutral" expression (no emotion).

Jurors judged the defendant more truthful and likeable when they saw the remorseful facial expression than when they saw the angry expression. Jurors judged the defendant with a remorseful expression less likely to repeat the crime.

Of jurors seeing the remorseful facial expression on the defendant, 60% voted for manslaughter. By contrast, 100% of the jurors seeing the neutral (no emotion) expression found the defendant guilty of manslaughter, and 100% of jurors seeing the angry facial expression found the defendant guilty of at least manslaughter. The only time a verdict of second degree murder was rendered was when jurors saw the angry facial expression.

A defendant's facial expression matters to jurors. Defendants who show remorse are treated with greater leniency. Defendants who show no emotion are treated more harshly, and defendants who show anger are treated most harshly.

Source MacLin, M.K., Downs, C., MacLin, O.H., & Caspers, H.M. (2009). The effect of defendant facial expression on mock juror decision-making: The power of remorse. North American Journal of Psychology, 11, pp. 323-332.