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Swearing an oath in court helps get you acquitted, research suggests

04 April 2023

istock

DEFENDANTS in court who do not “Swear by Almighty God” on the Bible are more likely to be found guilty by jurors who have a faith, a new report suggests.

The research, led by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and published on Tuesday in The British Journal of Psychology, concluded that the religious oath was “an antiquated legal ritual that needs reform”.

Professor Ryan McKay, of the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, said: “If taking the oath is seen as a sign of credibility, this could lead to discrimination against defendants who are not willing to swear by God. An earlier proposal to abolish the oath in England and Wales was defeated when opponents argued that the oath strengthens the value of witnesses’ evidence. This is ironic, as it seems to acknowledge that swearing an oath may give an advantage in court.”

Anyone giving evidence in court must declare that they are telling the truth, and can chose between swearing a religious oath or making a solemn affirmation that makes no mention of God. Legally, both are equally binding, but the report So Help Me God? Does oath swearing in courtroom scenarios impact trial outcomes? points to research that, in 2008, suggested that one fifth of British people questioned believed that morality was impossible without belief in God. “Moral suspicion of atheists is globally widespread and deeply entrenched,” it said.

To compare the effects of the two forms of declaration, the researchers ran a series of online studies. In the first, 443 adults were asked to assess the credibility of fictitious witnesses: one who affirmed, and one who swore a religious oath. That suggested that people associated the religious oath with credible testimony. A second survey of 915 people considered two hypothetical defendants, and found that those surveyed were biased against the one who chose to affirm.

In the final study, 1821 participants — including more than 600 non-believers — acted as jurors, watching a mock trial video, and were asked whether the defendant’s choice of declaration influenced the outcome. Overall, the defendant was not considered guiltier when affirming rather than swearing, but those who would swear an oath themselves did discriminate against the affirming defendant.

Dr Will Gervais, from Brunel University, London, who collaborated on the studies, said: “The biases we report are subtle, but could potentially tip the balance in cases that could go either way.” Professor Colin Davis, from the University of Bristol, who also worked on the report, said: “The stakes here are high; so our findings have important practical implications. Discrimination against defendants who choose not to swear an oath could lead to dozens, if not hundreds, of additional convictions every year.”

The director of public affairs and policy for Humanists UK, Richy Thompson, describing the findings as “alarming”, said: “There is no reason why jurors should know a defendant’s religion or belief. Given that prejudice based on religion or belief is still too common in the UK today, it would be best to reform the oath and affirmation system to one that doesn’t reveal this information to jurors.”

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