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Lay judges' political affiliations affect verdicts in Swedish criminal cases


Significant biases exist in the Swedish 'nämndeman' system that are closely associated with the political platforms of the lay judges' party affiliation, a new study from the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg shows. Amongst the study's main findings are that convictions of defendants with distinctly Arabic sounding names increase substantially when they are randomly assigned a Swedish Democrat (anti-immigration party) nämndeman while convictions for cases with a female victim increased with presence of a Vänster (left party) nämndeman.

Most justice systems in countries with representative governments attempt to form juries that are representative of the population or public opinion. How this is done varies across countries. In the Swedish nämndeman system, the share of lay judges from each political party reflects the results in the last election.

"The integrity of any justice system rests on the abstract promise of a fair trial, in which the verdict depends only on the quality of the evidence, and not the characteristics of the jury, including their race, age, gender, and political party. However, our study reveals that such differential treatment exists in the Swedish nämndeman system, at least with respect to political affiliation", says Professor Randi Hjalmarsson.

The presence of a Swedish Democrat in the nämndemän triplet increases the likelihood of conviction by 17 percentage points for defendants with distinctly Arabic sounding names. Moreover, having a Vänster nämndeman in the triplet increases convictions by 14 percentage points when there is a female victim, consistent with the party's feminist platform.

The study further strives to understand why the presence of these parties influences the verdicts. Is it because their vote is the deciding/swing vote in the case? Or do these Swedish Democrat and Vänster nämndemän influence the voting behaviour of their fellow nämndemän in a way that indirectly affects the outcome of the case?

"Our results suggest that most of the effect of these extreme party nämndemän on verdicts is the effect of their own vote. However, we also find strong evidence of 'peer effects' on juror votes, with nämndemän from both the far-left and far-right parties drawing votes of their more centrist peers towards their own positions. These peer effects take the form of both dissent aversion, where non-pivotal voters change their vote simply to ensure a unanimous decision and sway effects, where jurors influence the votes of their closest peers in a way that can impact trial outcomes", says Hjalmarsson.

So far, there has been little hard evidence on jury decision-making using data from actual trials anywhere in the world. Most studies rely on data from the United States; however, given the non-random nature of the jury selection process in the US, most of this literature can only be interpreted as correlation. The current study, however, uses a novel data set of criminal cases tried in Gothenburg, Sweden. It consists of more than 950 closed crimes against person cases for the Gothenburg District Court for 2009 to 2012, and takes advantage of the random assignment of nämndemän to cases.

Facts of the nämndeman system (Lay Judges) in Sweden:
Criminal cases in Sweden are adjudicated in the 48 District Courts. Each court employs a pool of professional judges and has an associated pool of nämndemän. In contrast to the U.S., where the jury pool is drawn from the general population, individuals must put themselves forward to become nämndeman. A nämndeman is appointed to the courts for a four-year term by the municipality or county council after being nominated by a political party. The share of each party in a jurisdiction’s nämndemän pool is proportional to the party's representation in that jurisdiction. A defendant's case is decided at the main hearing (trial). For a criminal case in which imprisonment is a possible sentence, the court is comprised of one professional judge and three nämndemän (triplet above).

More information:
Download the report "Politics in the Courtroom: Political Ideology and Jury Decision Making" by Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer and Randi Hjalmarsson: