Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Way To A Judge's Heart Is Through His Stomach

Further deepening my growing suspicions that life may best be described as a series of random events comes this news via Discover Magazine, “Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway the decisions of judges”. Yeah, that’s right, food breaks.

A Ben Gurion University researcher tracked over 1000 parole hearings over a ten month period, and then plotted this graph:

Think of the X-axis(labeled ordinal position) as stretching from 9 am to 5 pm, as the day goes by*. The Y-axis(proportion of favorable decisions**) shows the likelihood of being paroled. The enormous upward spikes that prevent the parole percentages from falling to less than 0%? Well those are the times the judges ate. Snack and lunch breaks were always documented, and the results speak for themselves.

The study found these outcomes regardless of gender, ethnicity, severity of the offense, number of favorable decisions already made (in other words, no “quota effect”). By far the most likely determining factor seems to be how long it has been since the judge last ate a Twinkie.

There are mathematical formulas for determining whether studies that show differences in populations (in this case, paroled vs. non-paroled prisoners) accurately reflect a cause and effect relationship, but my guess is that over a thousand decisions that can only go two ways (to let him out, or not) probably reaches statistical significance***.

However, why this happens is guesswork. I like the author’s simple explanation(see Occam’s razor):

All repetitive decision-making tasks drain our mental resources. We start suffering from “choice overload” and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for the default offer, whether they’re buying a suit or a car.

And when it comes to parole hearings, the default choice is to deny the prisoner’s request. The more decisions a judge has made, the more drained they are, and the more likely they are to make the default choice. Taking a break replenishes them.

So, you’re wrapping up cross examination of the last witness, and roughly calculate that after jury charge and closing the case will be sent to the jury around 11 a.m. Should you ramble on for a while to increase the chance the jury will decide your client’s fate either after or during lunch, instead of making a quick decision while they’re at their hungriest?****

[Footnotes:

*It appears to me that at a reported rate of fourteen to thirty five 6-minute decisions per day, the judges may not be nine to fiving these duties, but my point is the same. Also, I’m too lazy to click through all the hyperlinks to read the original study.

**One man’s favorable is another man’s shmavorable decision. The author of the study had the decency to call the decision to parole the inmate favorable, and to send him back to his cell for who-knows-how-long the opposite. Kudos for the empathetic use of vocabulary.

***More accurately, the math can only tell you the confidence interval, and again, while I’m not going to crunch the numbers, see laziness in footnote one, I bet this comes in well over a 95% confidence range.

****The question only makes sense (if it does at all) if you assume the default decision for a jury is “Guilty”. That’s a different blog post entirely.]

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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Jeff Gamso - April 13, 2011 1:53 PM

I had a case on appeal where after two days, the jury was hung. Dynamite charge. At the end of the third day, they asked for dinner and the judge refused to let them eat. They decided on guilty in a hurry after that.

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New York truck accident lawyer - September 8, 2011 5:16 AM

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Michigan Labor Lawyer - October 19, 2011 2:29 PM

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Detroit Criminal Defense Attorney - August 1, 2012 2:13 PM

This article/post is exceptional because I have tried many cases at trial and I swear there always tends to be a difference in the attentiveness and awareness of jurors before and after lunch. I believe Judges react in the same way before and after lunch or if they are able to leave to have a meal.

Dan - October 13, 2012 7:27 AM

Jeff,

What a bad day for the defendant if that was the case! Truly, an empty jury stomach will lead to conviction.

Dan

Henry Nguyen - December 27, 2012 4:01 PM

I thought there might be a small correlation between eating and sentencing, but not this dramatic.

Andrew - April 10, 2014 1:20 PM

This surprising study has revealed that how hungry a judge influences his decisions in regard to sentencing someone in court. This is a scary thought, and makes one wonder if snacks should be allowed in court, or more frequent recesses should be given to allow for small snacks to be consumed to make sure justice is doled out equally.

Jamie Spencer, Attorney at Law 812 San Antonio Street Suite 403, Austin, Texas 78701
phone: (512) 472 - 9909 | fax: (512) 472 - 9908