Trials & Litigation

Representing an Overweight Female Defendant? Male Jurors May Be Biased, Study Says

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Overweight female defendants may be judged more harshly by male jurors, a new study suggests.

The study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity involved a mock case involving check fraud, report Reuters and a news release. Researchers asked 471 study participants to review the allegations, showing them one of four mug shots of the defendant. The photos showed a thin male, a thin female, an obese male or an obese female. The test subjects were then asked to rate guilt on a five-point scale.

The male test subjects found the obese female defendant to be significantly guiltier than the lean female defendant. The female test subjects, on the other hand, judged guilt the same for both pictured female defendants.

The weight of the male defendant did not affect the judgment of guilt by test subjects.

The study says more research on weight bias in the courtroom is needed. “Given the rampant stereotypes of obese individuals as greedy, lazy and lacking self control, further investigation of whether jurors are more likely to ascribe guilt to an obese defendant versus a lean defendant is warranted, especially for those crimes that may be perceived as in accordance with existing stereotypes,” the study (PDF) says.

The study suggests some solutions to the problem. Voir dire and juror screening questionnaires may be ways to evaluate weight bias. Judicial instruction on the issue may also be helpful.

Lead study author Natasha Schvey told Reuters that more needs to be done to protect obese people from discrimination. She suggested changing state and federal anti-bias laws to make obese people a protected group.

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