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Nikoleta Despodova

College: John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Putting Rape Cases on Trial

Nearly 25 percent of women and 7.6 percent of men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner or acquaintance, according to an often-cited national study in 2000. Women account for 85 percent of the victims of intimate-partner violence, men only 15 percent. Among same-sex couples, 11 percent of lesbians and 15 percent of gay men reported violence by a partner, a 2003 study found, but other researchers contend that the rate is far higher.

So what happens when these cases arrive in criminal court? Do jurors give the same weight to testimony in same-sex cases as in heterosexual cases, or, as a 2009 study indicates, do they discount the likelihood or seriousness of violence in same-sex households?

Nikoleta Despodova (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, B.A. in forensic psychology, 2013) proposed exploring such questions with a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The $126,000, three-year award is the most prestigious one for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. She will conduct her research at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she will seek a Ph.D. in psychology and law.

She began to question how people evaluate evidence when she was 16, during the trial of the motorcyclist who fatally injured her grandfather. Although she completed four years of baccalaureate studies in English and literature in her native Bulgaria, “in order to find answers to my questions, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life and moved … to the United States to pursue a degree in forensic psychology” in 2008, she writes in her NSF application.

She decided to enroll in John Jay after attending an open house and hearing a presentation by a psychology professor.

There, she conducted independent research with professor Mark Fondacaro into whether a defendant’s or victim’s sexual orientation affects jurors’ perceptions of the mental state of heterosexual male and gay men defendants at the time of the crime. She worked in professor Margaret Bull Kovera’s research lab on federally funded studies examining the effectiveness of different methods of expert testimony and whether the people who administer photo-array lineups affect eyewitness identifications.

And, in research that laid the groundwork for her doctoral interests, she worked with professor Elizabeth Jeglic to examine the attitudes of student jurors. That research was supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares underrepresented students for doctoral work.

“The stereotypical image of rape and intimate-partner violence is of a man being stronger and assaulting a woman, but when faced with two male or two female partners, jurors have doubts about who they’re supposed to believe,” she says. “About 70 percent of [student] participants in the previous study [with Jeglic] found the heterosexual male guilty, but only 50 percent found a lesbian or gay man guilty. That’s a significant difference.”

“People didn’t expect such findings,” Despodova says. She hypothesizes that intimate-partner violence among same-sex couples may be seen as less serious, less likely to reoccur and less likely to lead to physical injuries.

In her NSF research proposal, she suggests giving questionnaires to 240 jury-eligible community members, followed by a mock trial. Besides looking at whether there is a tendency to judge gay men and lesbian defendants less harshly than heterosexual males, she proposed investigating the extent to which rape myths, homophobia and stereotypes about gay men and lesbians affect such judgments.