The Neuro-acquittal of O. J. Simpson


Did the late Johnny Cochran “play the neuro card” when he lead the Dream Team defense in the blockbuster OJ trial? In 1995, ex-football star O. J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, despite what to outside observers seemed to be a preponderance of forensic evidence indicating his guilt. Indeed, two years later he was found to be liable for the wrongful death of the two individuals by a different jury in civil court.

The original trial was dubbed the “Trial of the Century” by pundits due to its length and monumental press coverage. The acquittal, which came after minimal deliberation, shocked many people who, after months of detailed testimony, had felt that Simpson’s guilt was obvious. They chalked the surprise verdict up to racial bias; the predominantly black jury, the theory went, was unwilling to convict a black man. The jurors seized on the defense’s theory of false evidence fabricated by racist police to create reasonable doubt and eventually acquit OJ.

The verdict did little good for racial respect in the U.S. Surveys showed that a high percentage of white people thought OJ was guilty. OJ’s acquittal no doubt led some whites to believe that black people were either lacked the intelligence to understand the forensic evidence or, more likely, were simply willing to ignore the obvious to avoid convicting a fellow black person.

So, were these black jurors lying when they said the thought Simpson was not guilty? Did they really think he was probably guilty but vote to acquit anyway? I think there is a slightly more benign explanation found in recently announced neuroscience research.

In January, neuroscientist Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, described interesting research conducted in his lab. Westen presented staunch Republicans and Democrats with negative information about their candidate in the 2004 Presidential election while the subjects’ brains were monitored using fMRI brain scanning techniques.

Westen’s findings were significant. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning… What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts…Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.”

Put simply, these partisan individuals didn’t process political information using critical thinking; they processed the information emotionally. They discarded or discounted information that didn’t fit their partisan beliefs, and reinforced information that was consistent with their bias. It’s important to note that the method of handling this information wasn’t a conscious choice – rather, each individual’s brain viewed the information and processed it.

Back to the O. J. trial… Were the jurors simply acting on bias to acquit a person they knew was certainly guilty of the crime? I think not. I believe that when defense attorney Johnny Cochran “played the race card,” he was turning the trial into a partisan contest. Rather than argue about the evidence in a cool and rational manner (which would probably have been a losing strategy), Cochran turned it into a contest between a black man and an allegedly racist white detective, and, more generally, between blacks and whites.

It’s certainly believable that beliefs about one’s race could be at least as deep seated as traditional political credos. And few people would argue that most blacks have never seen some evidence of discrimination by whites. Indeed, for many years in Los Angeles there were certainly some police officers who were indeed racist, and there was significant distrust of the police in the black community. Turning the trial into a partisan contest wasn’t that difficult for a skilled and charismatic attorney who was also black himself.

So, if Cochran’s strategy put black jurors in a partisan frame of mind, Westen’s findings suggest that they would tend to overweight arguments that were exculpatory for the defendant, and be more likely discount even mountains of forensic evidence as racist fabrications.

Even if this is true, does it matter? I think it does, in a small way. I’d prefer to think that if a juror voted in a seemingly irrational manner that the juror did so because his or her perceptions were skillfully manipulated rather than because he or she consciously decided to vote to acquit a guilty person. If OJ is guilty, neither explanation of juror behavior is a good thing; the former, though, casts less doubt on the integrity of the individual jurors. Further research on political persuasion may also suggest a path for judges to reduce “partisan” effects in future trials, whether they are based on race, religion, ethnicity, or other characteristics.

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