Jury bias

Concern grows amongst the police and judiciary for the scale of unwarranted acquittals in rape cases, particularly in acquaintance rape cases where the accused is known to the victim

Rape Predisposition versus reality

A UNIVERSITY of Huddersfield psychology researcher’s detailed simulation of court cases has convinced him that rape trials need radical reform.  One option would be to be dispense with juries.  This would ensure fewer acquittals resulting from prejudice among jurors, he argues. 

It would mean a massive break with ancient English legal tradition.  But Dr Dominic Willmott has now held talks with a succession of politicians, legal figures and senior police officers and believes that the idea of judge-only rape trials are gaining traction among policy makers.

“I thought there would be so much resistance.  But there is a growing number of important people in a number of different agencies who agree with what I am saying and asking how we can bring about positive change,” claims Dr Willmott.

His main concern is a disproportionately high number of acquittals in “acquaintance rape” cases, in which the assault was allegedly carried out by a person known to the victim.

“The conviction rates for acquaintance rape trials are not publicly available, but when you speak to police officers and barristers, many believe there is something about these cases that fail to get convictions,” said Dr Willmott.  

“The psychology behind it is that a stranger grabbing you in a bush and violently raping you fits the public perception of what it means to be raped,” he argued.

“But if an assault doesn’t meet that psychological script, it can suggest to jurors that this isn’t a rape.  For example, the fact that a woman invited a man back to her flat doesn’t necessarily mean that sex is on the cards.

“It would appear that a large proportion of the general public don’t recognise this.  There is clear anecdotal and scientific evidence that the law around rape and the public perception of rape are two separate things and that’s why jurors are failing to convict.”

Jury bias

Dr Dominic Wilmott

Research Fellow in Forensic and Criminal Psychology

Dr Willmott has been invited to meet with a high-ranking judge to discuss the research, and there have been requests from legislative agencies including the Northern Irish Assembly and Judicial Office wishing to read his University of Huddersfield doctoral thesis, describing his work and its findings.

Dr Willmott has been invited to meet with a high-ranking judge to discuss the research, and there have been requests from legislative agencies including the Northern Irish Assembly and Judicial Office wishing to read his University of Huddersfield doctoral thesis, describing his work and its findings

Dr Willmott set up an ambitious series of simulated court cases, recruiting 100 volunteers to serve on “juries” for nine day-long trials, using real-life barristers, with actors as defendant and alleged victim.  A lecture theatre was transformed into convincing facsimile of a court room and the judge was played by a leading barrister.

The outcome of his simulations led to Dr Willmott’s conviction that there are too many unwarranted acquittals in acquaintance rape cases, and he now argues one solution to this problem is that rape trials be held without a jury.

He is aware of the enormous legal ramifications and complications arising from such a policy switch, more than eight centuries after jury trials became a right.  “There is a powerful motivation to keep things exactly as they are.”

But with data gathered from what are acknowledged as the most realistic simulations of rape trials to have taken place in the UK, Dr Willmott is gaining a hearing from highly influential individuals and organisations.

He was invited to speak at the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service, to an audience of prosecutors throughout the UK, and has met MPs who have a focus on the issue, leading to the prospect of a Commons debate.  There has been a meeting at the Ministry of Justice, discussing the issue of jury bias with the lead advisor for jury policy in England and Wales.

And Dr Willmott was invited to New Scotland Yard to talk to a forum chaired by Assistant Police Commissioner Martin Hewitt, who is National Police Lead for Adult Sexual Offences.

Most recently, Dr Willmott has been invited to meet with a high-ranking judge to discuss the research, and there have been requests from legislative agencies including the Northern Irish Assembly and Judicial Office wishing to read his University of Huddersfield doctoral thesis, describing his work and its findings.

The research continues and he plans to hold more rape trial simulations alongside the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Daniel Boduszek, to explore the prospect of juror screening as well as judge only trials.  But with the range of influential individuals and organisations taking a close interest Dr Willmott senses “a real opportunity for genuine policy change meaning a greater number of rape victims may get the justice they deserve”.