The relation between perception and attribution of guilt in court hearings – comparing rape, assault and robbery

Primary investigator: Maritha Jacobsson, Umeå university

Collaborators: Stefan Sjöström

Grant: Forte 2018-2020

People experiencing crime commonly have feelings of guilt, and it is often contended that victims are blamed in court hearings. This has primarily been discussed in relation to rape and violence against women. However the relation between perceptions and attributions of guilt is a complex matter. Feelings of guilt can occur independently from what happens in court. Moreover, seemingly obvious victim-blaming utterances may not result in feelings of guilt. There is hardly any research about which behaviors in the courtroom that actually cause feelings of guilt.

The project aims to investigate the relation between crime victims’ perception of guilt and discursive practices that might attribute guilt in court hearings. To capture variation in cultural contexts and understandings of crime events, we apply a comparative approach including three types of crime: rape, assault and robbery against a person. Specifically, the following empirical questions will guide the analysis:

  1. Do crime victims perceive that they are attributed with guilt during court hearings?
  2. Do crime victims perceive that they are attributed with guilt during the preceding police investigation and by their social environment?
  3. Do professionals in court perceive that guilt-attributing discursive practices occur during court hearings?
  4. Can guilt-attributing discursive practices be observed in court hearings?
  5. Do professionals in court apply conscious strategies to address the risk of attributing guilt to crime victims?

These questions are analyzed by comparing interviews with crime victims and professional participants with video-recorded witness interrogations from court hearings in which the interviewees have participated.

The results can contribute to assess the scope of the problem with victim-blaming in court hearings. They can also be used to develop professional practice to reduce the risk for victim-blaming.