Framing innocence: an experimental test of the effects of wrongful convictions on public opinion

Abstract

Objectives

Discourse about criminal justice in the USA increasingly revolves around wrongful convictions. Research has documented the emergence of the “innocence frame,” but relatively little is known about its effects on public opinion. We utilize framing theory to examine how various presentations of wrongful conviction information affect attitudes toward the justice system and highlight the consequences of the innocence movement for public opinion.

Methods

We implement two survey experiments to test the effects of innocence information for criminal justice attitudes. In the first experiment, we test the impact of wrongful conviction numbers relative to a control group for death penalty support. In the second experiment, we analyze the effects—both separately and jointly—of exoneration numbers and a wrongful conviction narrative relative to a control group for attitudes toward the death penalty and police reform, trust in the justice system, and personal concern.

Results

We demonstrate that the presentation of factual numbers of exonerations reduces support for capital punishment and erodes trust in the justice system, but fails to garner support for police reforms or increase personal concern about wrongful convictions. However, a narrative about an individual wrongful conviction predictably has more pronounced effects on death penalty attitudes and increases personal concern and support for police reform, but has little effect on trust in the justice system more broadly.

Conclusions

Wrongful convictions are consequential for public opinion, but the effects are contingent on how the information is framed and the attitudinal outcome of interest. Our findings have implications for criminal justice attitudes and policy, the innocence movement, and framing theory.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Butler et al. (2018) for a replication effort focused on the racial-argument treatment in Peffley and Hurwitz (2007).

  2. 2.

    Simmons (2017) examined news exposure and support for punitive policies, finding that exposure may increase punitiveness. Simmons suggests that this may be due to the inclusion of more episodic frames in local television news coverage than in print media, but does not assess or manipulate the frames, nor does the study analyze non-punitive attitudes.

  3. 3.

    We opted for a no information control rather than an unrelated information message (i.e., numbers about something else). We think that no information versus treatment information provides a cleaner test of hypotheses, and it eliminates the risk that what is assumed to be “benign” information in a control group activates unforeseen considerations.

  4. 4.

    Matching incorporates age, race, education, gender, party identification, ideology, employment, political interest, and born-again status.

  5. 5.

    Using the dichotomous dependent variable, the unweighted percentages of support for the death penalty by experimental condition are 69.17% for the control group and 62.13% for the treatment group.

  6. 6.

    The sample was matched based on age, gender, ethnicity, region, and partisanship.

  7. 7.

    This figure was based on common estimates of a wrongful conviction rate, which generally fall between 1 and 5% (e.g., Gross et al. 2014). There are more than 2.1 million people incarcerated in the USA (Kaeble and Glaze 2016); thus, an error rate of 5% would equate to more than 100,000 innocents incarcerated.

  8. 8.

    We thought this rhetoric might resonate with conservatives and death penalty supporters; one innocence advocate described the “true-perpetrator angle” as the “Republican pitch” for wrongful conviction reform (Norris 2017, 158). For example, New Jersey State Senator Joseph Pennacchio (R), a “law and order conservative,” recently stated, “If we convict somebody wrongfully, that means the person who committed the crime is still out there.” (Sullivan 2017).

  9. 9.

    We pre-tested our treatment on a sample of university students. Regarding the certainty of innocence based on DNA evidence, 95% of respondents in our pre-test sample reported that they believed the individual was innocent after reading the narrative. The remaining individuals selected “do not know”; no respondent believed he was “guilty.” Data from the Social Security Administration reveals that Michael was in the top 15 most common names from 1950 to 2017. According to 2010 Census data, Williams is the third most common surname and is almost equally divided between white (45.8%) and black (47.7%) individuals.

  10. 10.

    These are two well-known examples of miscarriages of justice in popular culture. The Serial podcast was downloaded more than 100 million times within its first 2 years and it is estimated that Making a Murderer was watched nearly 20 million times within a month of its release (Nededog 2016; Nyman 2016).

  11. 11.

    If the 7-point variable is simplified to oppose/support, the raw percentages of support for the death penalty by condition are as follows: 66.09% for the control group, 59.22% for the numbers frame, 55.24% for the narrative frame, and 53.63% for the combined frame.

  12. 12.

    Because the response options have a meaningful ordering, we employ ordered-logistic regression. Analyses using multinomial logit do not alter inferences about treatment effects.

  13. 13.

    The raw percentage supporting the death penalty using the 3-item measure are as follows: 53.75% for the control group, 46.3% for the numbers frame, 42.14% for the narrative frame, and 40% for the combined frame.

  14. 14.

    In the model without controls, the narrative slightly reduces trust in the system, but this is only significant if a one-tailed test of significance is used (see Supplementary Materials).

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APPENDIX

Table 5 Sample demographics

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Norris, R.J., Mullinix, K.J. Framing innocence: an experimental test of the effects of wrongful convictions on public opinion. J Exp Criminol 16, 311–334 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-019-09360-7

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Keywords

  • Wrongful conviction
  • Innocence
  • Miscarriage of justice
  • Exoneration
  • Death penalty
  • Public opinion
  • Framing theory
  • Police reform
  • Survey experiment