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Acquittal Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

Like me, you might be sick of seeing those half-hearted apologies that athletes, politicians, and other celebrities read off index cards when they’ve been caught publicly in a wrong. However, a new study suggests that those tactics (though trite and lame) might actually work.

Accountants from George Mason and Oklahoma State universities set their empirical skills to work on analyzing court cases, some of which saw the defendant offer up some kind of apology or at least an explanation for what they did, and some where they sat at the bench and said nothing.

TV commentators blab on and on during public scandals—the recent release of Michael Vick from prison back into the NFL being a good example—that the public needs to hear some kind of remorse from the person before they can move on. It seems that works in the courtroom, too. Even “objective” jurors, the scientists in this study found, went easier on those who apologized or explained their actions than those who didn’t.

The researchers say that these apologies seem to absolve jurors of some of the need to punish a defendant harshly, the same way we might say “well, he’s suffered enough” to an ordinary person who feels badly about something they did, however big or small. As a result, the study authors encourage defense attorneys to consider the apology alternative for their clients, especially in one of the 30 states that carries an “apology law” forbidding the jury to use an apology as evidence against a defendant.

And the researchers note one other important benefit of apologizing for those trying to beat the rap—as we’ve seen time after time in non-apology apologies by public figures, saying you’re sorry isn’t the same as saying you were wrong.


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