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This Week in Very Serious Trials

A round-up of news and research on headline-grabbing court cases.
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A screenshot of security footage from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's cell. (Photo: United States Marshals Service/Wikimedia Commons)

A screenshot of security footage from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's cell. (Photo: United States Marshals Service/Wikimedia Commons)

This week, three high-profile court cases across three different continents made headlines, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Mohammed Morsi, and Oskar Gröning were tried and/or sentenced for their crimes. A bombing, a tyrannical rule, and the complicity in over 300,000 deaths are three acts that would seem to be morally—and legally—as black and white as they come. Yet, new and old research adds a shade of gray, revealing the complex nature of regret, repeating history, and the death penalty.


On Tuesday, nearly two years after being ousted from office by the Egyptian military, former president Mohammed Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison after using deadly force against protesters. Morsi was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an underground organization that rose to power in 2011 after the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. In 2012, Morsi became the first president to be freely elected by the Egyptian public. Only one year later his regime fell under protest—thanks in large part to Mubarak's divisive rule. The military, led by current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took over in 2013.

The new el-Sisi led government has “vowed to crush” the Muslim Brotherhood, which it deems a terrorist organization, and publicly hopes to transition into a democratic system. But this eerily echoes a situation that played out in the country 60 years ago and, as we've seen, didn't end well. Sociologists might have an idea about why.

After a sudden overthrow of a tyrannical government, it’s easy to go all in, so to speak, on the alternative. Yiannis Gabriel of the University of Bath touched on this in a 2011 paper. “[L]eadership involves a powerful relation between leaders and followers, one based on identification of followers with the leader and his/her idealization,” he wrote. “[L]eaders fulfill vital emotional functions for their followers, paramount among which is the containment of anxiety and other toxic emotions.”

For example: In 1952, a low-ranking military officer name Gamal Abdel Nasser led a successful revolt against the then-Egyptian monarchy. After assuming power, Nasser became a merciful and successful leader, leading Egypt to full independence from Britain and setting an unprecedented benchmark for social justice and welfare. Yet he, too, clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood, after a failed assassination attempt. However, after Nasser's death in 1970, seemingly all his progress was undone by his successors, Anwar Sadat and subsequently Hosni Mubarak. This was the result of Nasser failing to implement real “democratic institutions” and the rapid “consolidation of autocratic rule” following his death, according to Mohamed Soffar, director of Civilizations Dialogue Center at Cairo University. Nasser's followers, trusting and content with their leader, did not insist on establishing a democratic process.

This post-Morsi moment echoes what the nation faced in 1954. If Egypt doesn’t insist that this current transitional period be built on “democratic institutions based on free choice and public representation,” Soffar wrote in his Al-Jazeera op-ed, “not only will the revolution be aborted, but also dictatorship will thrive for a very long period, again.”


In Lüneburg, Germany, a 93-year-old former SS member is facing trial for the “complicity in the murders of 300,000 mostly Hungarian Jews in two months during the summer of 1944,” according to the New York Times. The trial of Oskar Gröning, who served as a bank accountant at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is expected to last for at least three months.

After being read his charges, Gröning admitted to the deplorable nature of his involvement, saying, “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit. This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility.” He later shared that he had early doubts about Hilter and suggested they "grew almost immediately upon his arrival at Auschwitz.” So, is Gröning, as one might reflexively assume, full of it, or might these expressions of regret be genuine?

Then-Stanford professor of psychology Philip Zimbardo explored the nature of evil acts in his 2005 paper “The Psychology of Power and Evil: All Power to the Person? To the Situation? To the System?” While Zimbardo acknowledges that it has long been “a truism in psychology that personality and situations interact to generate behavior,” situations, he explains, exert far more control over human actions than is assumed by either psychologists or the public.

Zimbardo says that, “acknowledging the power of situational forces does not excuse the behaviors channeled by their operation,” but normally the “situation is taken to be nothing more than a set of minimally relevant extrinsic circumstances.” In other words, don't excuse the behavior, but recognize that the external circumstances of one’s environment—the situation—is just as, if not more, impactful to one’s behavior than their own willpower. Zimbardo's research outlines a number of influential forces, some of which include role playing, rules, emergent group norms, group identity, uniforms, anonymity, social modeling, authority presence, symbols of power, semantic framing, and stereotypical images and labels. This does not excuse Gröning of his actions, but it's worth noting that every element that Zimbardo laid out was in play in 1940s Nazi Germany. Gröning—maybe—could have just been a product of his environment, and—maybe—could be genuinely sorry about his actions.


As we speak, a jury is deciding whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who in April was found guilty of 30 charges related to the Boston Marathon bombing, should receive the death penalty or not. It’s recently been reported that in this sentencing phase of his trial, prosecutors showed jury members a picture of Tsarnaev extending his middle finger to a security camera not three months after taking the lives of three Bostonians and injuring hundreds more. “Unconcerned, unrepentant and unchanged,” the prosecutors said.

Should Tsarnaev receive the death penalty, many will feel a sense of justice, retribution, or satisfaction. And many will reasonably assume that the death of Tsarnaev would give the bombing’s victim’s families that same sense.

However, last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas challenged this societal assumption when they compared the physical, psychological, and behavioral health of murder victims' families in Minnesota, where life without the possibility of parole is the “Ultimate Penal Sanction,” and Texas, which leads the country in executions. What they found was a deeper satisfaction with the criminal justice system among family members in Minnesota. Yet, despite displaying higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health, Minnesota's surviving families still wished for the death penalty. This speaks volumes to our society's profoundly held belief that the death penalty provides the ultimate sense of retribution.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.