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‘Too much empathy is bad for justice

It is good for a judge to have some empathy with victims and offenders. But too much empathy can be harmful to the practice of the law, as PhD candidate Claudia Bouteligier has found. Literature may offer a solution. PhD defence 18 September.

It was headline news in 1995: following a long trial, actor and American football player O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife. In spite of overwhelming forensic evidence, after three hours of debate the jury concluded that Simpson should not be convicted of the murder.

Good story vs. hard evidence

‘This case shows how important stories are in court,' Claudia Bouteligier explains. Her PhD research is on the relationship between jurisprudence and literature. ‘Simpson's lawyers claimed that he was the victim of racist police agents. And even though there was a mass of evidence to the contrary, the majority black jury  believed the case put by the defence.' 

There are times when a good story can triumph over hard evidence, is Bouteliger's message. We want to understand the offenders and victims, and get to the bottom of why they did what they did. But, as the O.J. Simpson case shows, this drive for empathy can backfire. The jury thought they understood Simpson, but as a result they may well have acquitted him wrongfully. In court, attention was focused on the image that Simpson's lawyers constructed of the accused, rather than on the crime itself. And there may be other instances where someone has been wrongfully found guilty, purely because they didn't have a good story.

Albert Camus

Take, for example, Meursault, the key character in The Stranger by Albert Camus.  He kills a man in the street, but can't explain to the judge why he did it. It was the bright sunlight, he says. ‘He is unable to give the judge a logical story with a motive and an expression of regret,' Bouteligier explains. 'As a result, the judge doesn't understand him. In the end, it's his strangeness that brings him the death sentence.' 

It really is wise for a judge to postpone any assessment of an accused's personality or character, Bouteligier advises. It is impossible to understand another individual through and through, and it's all too easy to go down the wrong path. The message is not to go looking for a logical story behind every individual. Bouteligier: ‘Judges would do well to read literary works by authors like Dostoyevsky or Camus, who show just how wrogly things can turn out.' 

Text and images: Merijn van Nuland
Podcast: Merijn van Nuland
Music: Blue Dot Sessions – Stately Shadows / Les Hayden - Albert Camus and the Absurdism Crew

Listen to the podcast

Want to know more about this research? Listen to the question and answer session with Claudia Bouteligier.

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