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Dr. Sameena Mulla Assistant Professor, Social and Cultural Sciences

Since the first phase of their research began in 2013, Hlavka, Mulla and three undergraduate research assistants have spent hours upon hours in Milwaukee courtrooms observing at least 20 trials and hundreds of proceedings, including motion hearings, pleas, sentencing hearings and jury selections. They’ve documented courtroom elements not recorded by the stenographer — facial expressions, gestures, emotions, family interactions and off-record dialogues. The collaborators will analyze these observations in addition to court transcripts, media coverage, and their own interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, forensic nurses and victim-witness advocates to produce their findings.

This research project has also become a teaching tool. In 2010, Hlavka and Mulla implemented a courtmonitoring program for undergraduate students to observe courtroom proceedings to teach them qualitative and quantitative research methods, immerse them in the justice system, and instill a sense of civic responsibility. The researchers also partnered with community advocacy groups. “Sameena and I both had a background in working within our communities before we came to Marquette,” Hlavka says. “It’s very important to us to work with the service providers, who work so hard for victims but don’t have the means we do, to share our data and results with these community partners and continue our dialogue on sexual assault with them.”

Mulla says social media has become an accepted form of evidence to hold people accountable in the court system.

With plenty of compelling data gathered, the team has numerous research avenues to pursue. One of Hlavka and Mulla’s research objectives is to learn how forensic evidence is used in the courtroom. Previous research indicates forensic evidence might help get a case to the trial stage, but its presence does not necessarily lead to convictions. Perhaps their research will explain this inconsistency. The professors note that because 75 percent of all assault cases are committed by someone known to the victim, most cases rely heavily on testimony instead of science.

If the relevance of forensic evidence is sometimes inconsequential, then the researchers must also investigate the role of voices in the courtroom. So the research is layered: How are victim and defendant testimonies used? How does the opposition manipulate them? How are expert witnesses presented to judge and jury, and how is their expertise proved or disproved?

Hlavka and Mulla plan to finish courtroom observations this spring and will write a book to share their findings. More immediately, they will present to their peers one research discovery they weren’t expecting: how social media is used and understood in the courts. Text messages, Facebook posts and cell phone tracking data are all being introduced Forensic evidence by both sides to might help get a case to prove or disprove the trial stage, timelines, state but its of mind, intent, knowledge and presence character. Mulla says social media has does not become an accepted form of evidence necessarily to hold people accountable in the lead to convictions. court system; however, the standards of evidence for it have been unevenly adopted by civil and criminal courts, with strict and much looser standards, respectively.

Dr. Heather Hlavka Assistant Professor, Social and Cultural Sciences


How do the prosecution and defense use assault stereotypes and myths: the “disturbed monster offender” versus the “asking-for-it, sexually promiscuous” victim, for example?


A significant $100,000 National Science Foundation grant provided an opportunity for Hlavka, with a criminology perspective, and Mulla, with an anthropology one, to combine the tools of their disciplines to study how evidence is used, presented and processed in sexual assault trials. It appears this study will be the first of its kind to base its observational findings on of assaults are committed by more than a few trials. The busy Milwaukee someone known to the victim. County Court system — with four courts dedicated to homicide and sexual assault cases — provides ample opportunity to observe many more.

When their research project is complete, Hlavka and Mulla hope they will have helped move the discourse of sexual assault trial research forward. They also share a greater goal. “We’re hoping to shed light on how our institutions are responding to sexual assault, but we ultimately want to find ways we and these institutions can stop sexual assaults,” says Mulla.

solving the puzzle

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Discover Research 2014  

Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette'...

Discover Research 2014  

Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette'...