The Impact of Legal Reform*: Social Perception of Rape Victims

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Since 1975, 40 states have enacted “rape shield” statutes which limit the admissibility of a rape victim's prior sexual history in court. These reforms have assumed that jurors regard prior sexual history evidence as much too probative of a victim's credibility and moral character, and that such perceptions have a prejudicial impact on the outcome of the jury decision process. The present research adopted an attributional analysis in order to examine the extent to which the types of legal reform affect social perception of the victim as well as the conviction rate in a videotaped consent defense rape trial. A large-scale jury simulation experiment was conducted with qualified jurors from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Jurors either viewed an Improbable or Probable Likelihood of (victim) Consent version of the trial, with admission of prior sexual history evidence governed by one of three types of exclusionary rules. The results lend credence to the reformist contention that a rape victim is “on trial” along with the accused. Jurors were reluctant to convict when any testimony about prior sexual history was introduced. Moreover, jurors' close scrutiny of the victim's credibility and moral character was directly related to the conviction rate. Only the most restrictive evidentiary rule, when applied to an Improbable Consent case, curtailed the inference of victim consent, enhanced victim credibility, and increased the likelihood of conviction. Some of the legal and attributional implications of these findings were discussed.

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