Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Your Fate in Others' Hands

One of the scariest things about litigation is that your fate is in the hands of people you don't know who may or may not see the world the same way you do. Everyone has their own prejudices, biases, experiences, and understandings of what makes sense to them and what doesn't. Sometimes the mental predispositions of other people line up with your own thinking and sometimes they don't. It's not necessarily that one world view is "right" and another is "wrong." It's just that different people see things in different ways. Often that's a good thing because different viewpoints can be an engine of progress and a fountain of new and interesting ideas.

In a legal setting, however, these differences can be terrifying because what makes perfect sense to you might seem utterly foreign or unbelievable to someone else or vice versa.

Take, for example, a case where a woman reports that she was sexually assaulted. An investigation reveals that the morning after the alleged assault, the woman sent text messages to the alleged assailant saying "I'm ok" or "I'm fine." What is the right way to interpret the significance of those messages? Are the text messages admissions that nothing really happened the night before or are they signals that the woman is still processing the trauma she experienced?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Andy Thomason and Robin Wilson, here is what one lawyer who specializes in investigating allegations of sexual assaults on college campuses is quoted as saying:
"I’ve seen text messages exchanged very, very soon after an alleged assault, and I put less weight onto those," she says. If a woman is saying things like "It’s OK" or "I’m fine," says Ms. Kurker, "they don’t mean anything except the person just doesn’t want to deal with the situation right now." 
But if, weeks on, the alleged victim is sending friendly texts to the alleged perpetrator, that could mean something different. "It doesn’t make sense," she says, "that they would be exchanging flirty text messages after that time if something had gone wrong."
What's interesting about this statement by the investigator is not whether her view of what different messages at different times might mean for a particular person is right or wrong, because how would you know, especially in an individual case. Rather, the statement is striking because it offers a glimpse into the influence of preconceived notions on interpreting events and forming judgments about them.

And here's the real point: everyone comes to questions of fact with preconceived notions. Sometimes we call these notions experience. Sometimes we call them common sense. Those are the positive descriptors. If we disagree with the predispositions, we call them bias, prejudice, or ignorance.

For people caught up in the legal system, the reality is that winners and losers will in many cases be decided, right or wrong, by what makes sense to other people whether we agree with them or not.

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