Frames Fatale: Applying Framing to Criminal Trials Using the Case of a Female Gang Member
McDonald, Aubri Fair
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‘Framing’ concepts were applied to the murder case of Jacqueline Montañez to illustrate their value for examining processes of justice and injustice in American criminal trials. In 1992, Montañez, a then 15-year-old gang member, was charged for the murders of two rival male gang members in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. Montañez was convicted in two trials and ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole. ‘Framing’ refers to the way meanings are made through the way information is presented and interpreted and is typically used to examine how media and political messages shape public opinion. Despite its relevance to understanding decision-making, judgment and bias, the ‘framing’ approach has yet to be systematically applied to analyze criminal trials. Framing was applied to different stages of Montañez’s trials using a four-part framing definition proposed by communication scholar Robert Entman. Entman defines framing as a process of selecting information and making it salient to promote a particular problem definition (i.e., the charges), causal interpretation (i.e., prosecution versus defense at trial), moral evaluation (i.e., verdict), and treatment recommendation (i.e., sentence). Court transcripts and media from Montañez’s case were analyzed using qualitative content analysis and the constant comparative method with particular attention to how her gang membership, race, gender and age influenced her trial outcome. The nature of Montañez’s charges guaranteed she would be tried as an adult and mandated her life without parole sentence. Throughout Montañez’s trials, prosecutors relied on a ‘gang frame’ buttressed by intersecting gendered and racialized frames to reinforce her guilt. Studies have found that gang associations can produce a powerful biasing effect since stereotypes linked to gang involvement activate highly accessible associations to danger and threat. The ‘gang frame,’ was reinforced at her trial to such a degree, it is argued, that possible mitigating factors were never considered and questionable practices went unchecked. Entman’s definition is proposed as a model for the further study of criminal trials. This study raises substantial questions about the presumption of innocence for members of stigmatized populations.