Minority Mens Rea: Racial Bias and Criminal Mental States

Francis X. Shen

Volume 68, Issue 5, 1007-1084

The American criminal justice system relies upon jurors to regularly decode the mental states of criminal defendants. These determinations are often of black and Hispanic defendants, making “minority mens rea” a centerpiece of the justice process. This Article presents an empirical investigation of how jury eligible subjects decode minority mens rea. In a study involving over 1200 subjects, the Article explores whether subjects assign fictional protagonists named Jamal and Lakisha more culpable mental states than they assign to protagonists named John and Emily. The results show that, at least on this particular experimental task, racial bias does not affect the assessment of minority mens rea. An implication is that some decisionmaking contexts and tasks may dampen the effects of racial biases. The Article thus argues that we should continue to examine distinct legal decisionmaking tasks in order to better understand how biases do (and do not) affect outcomes in the criminal justice system.

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