Judicial Notebook

In 2006, a Colorado jury convicted Homaidan Al-Turki, a Saudi Arabian citizen who had been pursuing a PhD at the University of Colorado, of unlawful sexual contact, extortion, false imprisonment and other charges. The charges stemmed from accusations made in November 2004 by Al-Turki’s housekeeper, who is identified in court records as “Z.A.”

Z.A.’s allegations contradicted her previous statements to investigators, and the prosecution used references to Islamic culture to explain her reluctance to come forward against Al-Turki. For example, an expert witness testified that reports of sexual abuse are punished in Saudi Arabia. The prosecution also showed the jury a mannequin dressed in “Muslim women’s clothing,” suggested that Z.A.’s dress requirements made her an “invisible prisoner” and asked the jury “to make her visible again.” The trial also included passing references to Osama bin Laden, Ramadan, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Prior to the trial, 106 potential jurors were assembled. Given the issues that were expected to come up during the trial, the potential jurors were asked to briefly give their reaction to the fact that “the defendant, the complaining witness, and the other witnesses in this case are Muslims.” The potential jurors were also asked general questions about their ability to be fair and impartial. Then the parties were given 45 minutes to question the pool and exercise their peremptory challenges. Ultimately, 12 were selected to the jury.

As the jury was being sworn, one of the jurors interrupted the proceeding. He said that his understanding of the “Muslim religion” was “that the laws of God are higher than the laws of man,” and he asked whether the fact that he was “more likely to believe a person of faith would commit a crime if . . . the faith conflicted with the laws of our government” amounted to a bias. He also indicated that his bias might somehow come into play “if it came to a situation where it was a he said, she said issue.” Al-Turki’s counsel asked for permission to further question this juror about his beliefs, but the court denied this request. The court also denied counsel’s request to dismiss the juror, stating that the juror’s responses to the questions submitted to the pool qualified him to serve.

Al-Turki’s appeals were unsuccessful, and on April 5, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider his argument that the trial court should have allowed him “to probe the juror for potential bias.” Although few psychologists have studied anti-Muslim bias in legal decision-making, research to date sheds light on some of the issues raised by Al-Turki’s case.

First, research indicates that prospective jurors may be reluctant to disclose biases for a number of reasons: They might perceive their bias to be socially unacceptable, they might not be aware of their biases or they might view the questioning as an invasion of privacy (e.g., Vidmar, N., 2003). When all of us are victims: Juror prejudice and “terrorist” trials. Chicago-Kent Law Review, 78, 1143–1178). This suggests that a juror’s belated expressions of doubt about his own impartiality might merit probing, even if that juror failed to admit to bias during the jury-selection process.

Also, research indicates that information associating Muslims with negative attributes (such as terrorism) can create implicit biases that are difficult to detect with explicit measures (Park, J., Felix, K., & Lee, G. (2007). Implicit attitudes toward Arab-Muslims and the moderating effect of social information, (Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 29, 35–45). This finding suggests that people who are exposed to negative portrayals of Muslims — through the media or otherwise — might develop anti-Muslim biases that could be hard to identify during the jury-selection process. It also suggests that the prosecution’s use of negative associations during a trial might foster an implicit bias against a Muslim defendant.

Monica K. Miller, JD, PhD, et al. (2008) find that religion affects trials in different ways. More research is needed, however, to explore these effects in cases involving Islam, such as research on the impact anti-Muslim biases have on verdicts.

“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).