Purdue News

April 1, 2005

Prof explains courtroom persuasion strategies, trial tactics

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Trial tactics that defy common sense are just one reason millions of Americans are drawn to the many law-related shows on television, says a Purdue University psychologist who studies persuasion in the courtroom.

Kipling Williams
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"One kind of tactic copied in television shows is called stealing thunder," said Kipling Williams, professor of psychological sciences. "This technique, which goes against the thinking that first impressions are important, is employed when the defendant's attorney brings up the worst piece of evidence against his or her own client before the prosecution makes the charge.

"By stealing thunder, the attorney diminishes that impression's impact," said Williams in a chapter about trial tactics in "Psychology and Law: An Empirical Perspective." The new book ($60), which Williams co-edited, was released in March by Guilford Press.

Williams, who also has studied the biasing effects of judges' instructions to jury members and eyewitness accuracy, said many lawyers assume the stealing-thunder tactic works because they are framing negative news in a positive light. For example, the attorney might say, "Though my client was convicted of a similar crime 10 years ago, he served his probation and turned his life around and now volunteers in the community regularly."

But Williams has found that attorneys don't even have to frame the negative news.

"Just saying he was convicted of a similar crime 10 years ago does just as much to minimize the issue because it makes the attorney, and the client, look honest," he said. "It also makes members of the jury think this news must not be so bad if the attorney is willing to bring it up."

Williams has measured this in a variety of laboratory studies with mock jurors, using various types of thunder techniques.

Another tactic, which the 1990s TV show "Ally McBeal" capitalized on, is courtroom distractions.

"Common sense says that distractions would hurt a case, but it's a two-edged sword," he said.

For example, it could be a good thing if squeaky shoes, random noises or uncomfortable room temperatures distract members of a jury during a trial. If an attorney is presenting a weak argument, then a distraction can direct attention and the jury's message processing away from a lack of evidence, Williams said. At the same time, distractions can divert attention and message processing away from the other side when the opponent is presenting a stronger case.

"Any time trial tactics or strategies are discussed it raises ethical concerns about how these forms of persuasion are used," Williams said. "It's important to talk about such tactics so people in the court system are aware of how they are used, and people can determine whether these techniques interfere with a system designed to be just and fair.

"Persuasion is a part of the judicial process from start to finish, from how the judge, as a person of authority, talks to jurors to voir dire – how attorneys select jurors."

The chapter, "Trial Strategy and Tactics," is co-authored with Andrew Jones from Macquarie University in Australia and is based on Williams' 25-year study of trial tactics. Williams co-edited the book with Neil Brewer, a professor of psychology at Flinders University in South Australia.

Williams is currently studying ostracism, and his upcoming book is titled "The Social Outcast: Effects of Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying."

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Kipling Williams, (765) 494-0845, kip@psych.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Kipling Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue, studies persuasion techniques used in the courtroom. Williams, co-editor of "Psychology and Law: An Empirical Perspective," explains how trial tactics, such as stealing thunder and distractions, can affect jurors. Williams also has studied how judges' instructions can bias jury members as well as the accuracy of eyewitnesses. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at https://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2005/williams-courtroom.jpg


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