Sometimes the facts are right in front of the jurors' faces, and other times they are in a black box needing to be inferred rather than observed. Intent is one such black box issue. In a recent case, for example, jurors had to decide if a defendant, John Lewis, acted in a "willful, deliberate, and premeditated" manner when shooting a police officer during a robbery of a Dunkin' Donuts. It mattered to the determination of a life or death sentence whether Lewis had formed a specific intent prior to the shooting, or whether he reacted in a panicked fashion the moment he saw the officer. The jury in this case had the benefit of a surveillance video which they viewed in real time, but also repeatedly in slow motion. After reviewing that evidence, the jury found that intent was present and Lewis was sentenced to death. The defense, though, raised the issue on appeal, arguing that the repeated use of the slow motion video created the "false impression of premeditation."
Some recent research supports that appeal. As explained in an opinion piece in The New York Times, the study (Caruso, Burns, & Converse, 2016) was based on a simple design: Mock jurors watched a shooting surveillance video, similar to what was used in the Lewis trial, only half viewed it in slow motion and half watched at regular speed. The slow motion video was much more persuasive for the prosecution. "Seeing replays of an action in slow motion," the authors concluded, "leads viewers to believe that the actor had more time to think before acting than he actually did. The result is that slow motion makes actions seem more intentional, more premeditated." In fact, jurors who saw the slow motion video were more than four times more likely to return a unanimous first degree murder verdict. The team found similar results using National Football League footage of prohibited helmet-to-helmet contact in video replay. This finding carries obvious implications for the use of video and reconstructions in trial: If you want to emphasize intent, slow it down, and if you don't, then keep it at normal speed. The broader notion of expanding or compressing time, however, also carries implications for other tools that deal with the perception of sequence. The timeline or the structure of the story itself might be stretched or squeezed in order to influence the receiver's perception of deliberation and intent.
Perspective is Everything
We've written previously about the ways graphic design can warp perception. For example, in an accident diagram or reconstruction, use of the overhead, so called "gods eye view" can lead to greater perceptions that an accident was foreseeable and avoidable. When presented with a driver's eye view, however, the same scenario doesn't seem nearly as predictable or preventable. The effect of slow motion is another example of the principle that perspective determines perceived control. If we see each motion as slow, distinct, and deliberate, even when we know it isn't real time, we are still left with the powerful perception that the actor exercised greater choice and wielded more control.
And There's No Such Thing as a Neutral Representation
for that reason, some would say it is better to avoid slow motion. As the study authors conclude, courts "may not want to be so fast to slow things down." At the same time, it is easy to imagine that the side wanting to slow things down can come up with good reasons to do so. The jury, after all, has to be the referee on facts, and referees are more likely to notice small details and to make more accurate calls when viewing the slow-motion replay. And even without the slow motion, every other aspect of presentation in a video or animation -- vantage point, angle, lighting -- is likely to slant the perception. The same is likely to apply to timelines and other demonstratives. There is no unfiltered view.
But Courts Should Listen to the Social Science
The lack of neutrality, however, doesn't mean that all forms of unfairness are equal. Some slants are the kinds of slants that courts properly should exclude. And courts should not be too quick to believe that corrective information or instructions can cure the bias. In the Lewis case mentioned above, for example, the court denied the appeal, arguing that the jury had enough knowledge to correct for any distortion caused by the slow motion, specifically the knowledge that it unfolded quickly and Lewis shot the officer within two seconds of seeing him. The researchers checked, however, to see if that information really works, repeatedly informing research participants about the true duration of the clip, and verifying that they understood it. Despite that, using the slow-motion video still increased perceptions of control and premeditation.
The social science tells us that the perception of greater control is sticky. For that reason, one could imagine a court using that social science to conclude that the prejudicial value of slow-motion video outweighs the probative value in a case like this. This is just one example where the courts could make greater use of social science to correct what may be over-optimistic assumptions about jurors' levels of information and control. On the question of whether rehabilitation works, and whether jurors understand legal instructions, courts would be well advised to slow things down, to look past the logic of what jurors should understand and do, and consider the psychological science of what they actually do understand and do.
Other Posts on Perspective:
Caruso, E. M., Burns, Z. C., & Converse, B. A. (2016). Slow motion increases perceived intent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201603865.