An estimated 24.8 million Americans have been stalked in their lifetime, and 74% are women. While all 50 states have laws against stalking, charges are rarely filed—and when they are, most victims report dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system’s handling of their case.
One component of the process: juries. To get a better sense of how jurors see stalking, a team from the University of Kentucky presented 204 participants with two hypothetical cases.
In the first scenario, the male defendant approached the female victim five times. (The National Institute of Justice defines stalking as at least two occasions of unwanted contact intended to cause fear.) In this case, men and women were almost identical in their perception of whether the behavior constituted stalking, with 38% of women and 40% of men voting to convict.
In the second case, the hypothetical defendant harassed the victim 30 times. As the contact increased, women became far more likely to convict, with 75% voting guilty. But the far more frequent harassment had zero effect on male jurors, with 37% voting to convict—a slight drop from those who saw guilt in the five instances of contact made by the first stalker.
Researchers asked participants to explain their verdicts in the second case, where the victim was harassed more frequently. An analysis of the language used showed that women more frequently employed words and phrases referring to the victim’s perspective: “fear,” “could hurt her,” “threat,” “concern.”
Male participants used more terms identifying with the defendant or his motives: “love sick,” “never directly,” “no violence,” “no harm.”
“The more you identify with the victim, you’re more likely to say guilty . . . based on the fact that you can say, I wouldn’t want that to happen to me,” said Casey Magyarics, a social psychology graduate student and the study’s lead author. “The more you can identify with the defendant, the more you are likely to say not guilty.”
The study failed to present a case with the genders of the victim and defendant swapped, so the authors weren’t able to determine whether the women identified with the hypothetical woman because she was a woman, or because she was a victim of a crime that predominantly affects women.