SARASOTA, Fla. (June 27, 2018) – Stephanie Diaz-Ortega wants to pursue a doctoral degree to teach at college. Sabrina Zabell and Lea DeWeerd are hoping to become physicians, although DeWeerd admits an interest in psychology and research as well.
While the three USF Sarasota-Manatee students are following different career paths, they’re spending the summer in mostly the same job at the same place, and that’s fine with them. They’re working as research interns for Dr. Christine Ruva, an associate professor of psychology in USFSM’s College of Science & Mathematics. For four to 10 hours a week, they assist Dr. Ruva inside a lab near the USFSM campus, researching how Pre-Trial Publicity, or PTP, affects jurors’ decision making.
At the moment, they’re reviewing video from mock jury deliberations, looking for signs of bias due to the media coverage. The work is detail-oriented, with the interns poring over the same footage repeatedly, but it’s also engrossing as they examine the jurors’ comments for traces of bias. With each PTP instance they make a notation on a computer program.
“These students have gone through hours of training before they code their first jury deliberation video,” Dr. Ruva said. “Only those who are serious and up to the challenge are retained to conduct the actual coding of these jury deliberations.”
For the interns’ part, they’re hoping the work bolsters their educational and career success. Diaz-Ortega plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology. She’s been working with Dr. Ruva for two years and says the experience is preparing her for graduate school and a career as a professor and researcher.
Zabell and DeWeerd are hoping the experience helps them as they seek entrance to medical school. They say the work demonstrates attention to detail and a commitment to research principles and the scientific method, which should elevate their applications.
“More often, medical schools are looking for more well-rounded students and I thought that, along with my studies in biology, if I had a psychology or human behavior background that might help,” Zabell, 25, a junior from Miami, said.
So far, the students’ work has focused on the jurors’ reactions to PTP, but soon they’ll enter a new phase of the research where they review and interpret the data they’ve collected. Zabell says the work is fascinating for the behind-the-scenes glimpse it offers into the justice system.
“It’s revealing in the sense that in reality you don’t really know what juries talk about,” she said. “All of the deliberations are kept private, among the jurors themselves, and you don’t really get a lot of definitive insight into what they think, what drives them and what they believe. This research reveals some of that.”
The juries are actually comprised of college students, but the cases they deliberate on consist of video footage from real criminal trials. Before the discussions, the “jurors” are asked to read pre-trial publicity surrounding the case then watch video footage from the trial – staying mindful not to intertwine the two when they deliberate later. The interns’ research focused on those discussions.
“The legal system believes that deliberations can reduce the bias associated with exposure to pre-trial publicity and that jurors can put aside this bias and use only the information presented at trial when deciding verdicts,” Dr. Ruva said. “The work these students are doing shows that both assumptions are incorrect. Specifically, during deliberations pre-trial publicity is often discussed without correction and this discussion influences jurors’ verdicts.”
DeWeerd, 24, a senior from Bradenton, said the experiment was insightful not just for what it revealed about juries and the legal system, but for what it said about human behavior. Even though the jurors were instructed at the outset not to reference media coverage (PTP) in their talks, they seemingly couldn’t resist doing so.
“Sometimes they didn’t even know that what they were saying came directly from the newspaper,” she said. “Other times they messed up the validity of the facts. For example, they might talk about a loaded gun when the gun wasn’t loaded. They’ll stray from the facts.
“It’s compelling that people are drawn to do what they’re not supposed to do,” she said, summing up.
Diaz-Ortega, 25, from Puerto Rico and a recent USF graduate, said she was intrigued at how the jurors responded to PTP. Some of the groups launched into media references almost immediately, seemingly unaware they were confusing PTP with the trial arguments.
“It was really interesting to see how the participants embraced their roles as pretend jurors, as well as their reactions to the material presented at different phases of the study,” she said. “It was interesting how they reacted to what they read and saw.”
Dr. Ruva, who worked as a probation and parole officer for the state before receiving her doctorate in 2001, started collecting data for the project in 2012 after years of pilot studies. Her previous students collected data from 648 participants deliberating on 126 juries. Each of those deliberations was videotaped.
Going forward, Diaz-Ortega, Zabell and DeWeerd will analyze data from their research and submit their findings to the American Psychology-Law Society for a conference presentation in March 2019. They’ll also help Dr. Ruva create a manuscript for publication. The work they’re performing is more typical of graduate students than undergraduates, she said.
“These are not small or simple research projects that they are working on,” said Dr. Ruva. “These are multiple-session experiments with hundreds of participants and require sophisticated and complicated analyses.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ruva’s research has potential to impact millions of Americans.
“This work demonstrates that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial is threatened in high-profile cases having anti-defendant, pre-trial publicity,” she said. “In addition, prosecutors’ ability to effectively present the state’s case is threatened by pre-trial publicity that is anti-victim or anti-prosecution. Therefore, the influence of PTP on jury verdicts is an issue that should concern both defense and prosecuting attorneys.
“This current research aims to educate both social scientists and the legal professional as to how pre-trial information biases jury decisions and shows that the traditional legal remedies of judicial instruction and jury deliberations do little to correct for this pre-trial bias.”
For more information about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s psychology program, visit usfsm.edu/academics/programs-and-majors/undergraduate/psychology/index.aspx.