Jurors fail to understand rape victims

June 25, 2009

Rape trial juries need better guidance in the courtroom -- and a better understanding of rape victims -- to help them reach their verdict.

Professor Vanessa Munro of The University of Nottingham and Dr Louise Ellison of the University of Leeds found jurors have a poor understanding of the various ways in which women might react when raped, the levels and types of injuries they might sustain and the different behaviours they might display in the witness box.

The researchers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, set up mock court cases to examine how jurors reacted to different pieces of evidence and how these were then discussed in the jury room.

In particular, they found that many jurors expect rape victims to:In reality, many rape victims offer no physical resistance, many suffer no injury, many delay reporting rapes for significant periods and many react to rape by exhibiting extreme calm -- often as a strategy to help them cope. The research shows that each of these reactions, in challenging the assumptions of jurors, can work against rape complainants when they appear in court -- and may be one factor which contributes to the low conviction rate of 6.5 per cent in reported rape cases.

The researchers also examined whether educational guidance given to jurors about these issues by a judge or expert witness would lead to a fairer, less prejudicial assessment of complainant credibility in rape cases. They found jurors who received this guidance were more likely to accept that a woman who had been raped might delay reporting the incident to police, and may appear calm and controlled under cross-examination.

Even so, jurors who received this guidance still expected complainants of rape to have resisted strenuously and be injured as a result.

Professor Munro said: "The research shows that misconceptions about 'normal' responses to rape influence jurors' assessments of credibility -- and this is a barrier to securing justice for the victim. Further work needs to be done to identify the most appropriate mechanisms by which to introduce this education. Care will be needed to ensure that the guidance is measured in tone, and avoids any suggestion of unfair prejudice to the accused, but we are optimistic that this can be achieved."

Dr Ellison said: "There is a clear need for educational guidance in rape cases. Defence lawyers often seize upon any delay or lack of resistance to undermine the credibility of a rape complainant in court. Jurors need to be fully informed about the wide range of reactions and emotional responses rape can inspire."

The research "Complainant Credibility & General Expert Witness Testimony in Rape Trials: Exploring and Influencing Mock Juror Perceptions" follows proposals published in 2006 by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform to allow prosecutors in rape cases to use general expert evidence to educate jurors about the impact of rape and the complex, disparate reactions of victims during and post-assault. The fate of these proposals is still being debated, although the Solicitor-General has recently announced plans to develop draft judicial directions that can also be used for this educative purpose in rape cases. Because it is unlawful to conduct research with real juries, the researchers used trial and jury room simulations to explore public understanding of common reactions to sexual victimisation.
A briefing paper summarising the findings of the study is available on request.

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent'. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation -- School of Pharmacy), and was named 'Entrepreneurial University of the Year' at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.

Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

More information is available from Professor Vanessa Munro on +44 (0)115 846 6312, vanessa.munro@nottingham.ac.uk; or Dr Louise Ellison on +44 (0)113 343 2684, L.E.Ellison@leeds.ac.uk; or Simon Jenkins in the University of Leeds' Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 5764, s.jenkins@leeds.ac.uk or Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager, on +44 (0)115 951 5751, lindsay.brooke@nottingham.ac.uk

University of Nottingham
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