How much control do we have over our gestures, or over our nonverbal behavior? This is a question that seems academic, but may well be crucial in deciding Ronell Wilson’s fate. Ronell Wilson is 24 years old, American, and recently sentenced to death over the murder of two policemen. After the verdict was delivered, family and colleagues of the victims present in the courtroom cheered and Wilson stuck his tongue out. The gesture was the criticized by media hardliners as ‘showing a lack of remorse’, which might hurt his case in appeals to come. It may even prevent his sentence from being changed from death to life in jail.

Impression of Court

Impression of the court (source for more)

Michael Brick wrote a very good piece in the NY Times about the following events taking place after verdict, including the following description:

Someone on the victims’  side of the room shouted ‘yes,’ and there was brief clapping. The Wilson family huddled together. Someone in the gallery called out, “And the Lord rejoices.” When the foreman was done, the jurors filed out. Mr. Wilson’s brother yelled obscenities. The defendant’s mother, Cheryl Wilson, shouted: ‘You all murderers now.’ People hugged and wept and shouted. And Mr. Wilson stuck out his tongue. Was he reacting to the sentence? To the rejoicing or comments from the victims’ relatives? Was he trying to insult the widows? Was he trying to rebuke the jury? Were his lips dry? Was he simply overwhelmed? Only Mr. Wilson knows, if anyone knows at all.

I think mr. Brick has it right in his analysis. There are many ways of interpreting a tongue sticking out of a mouth. It is entirely possible that it is but an instinctive “tongue-show” triggered by the provocation and the stress. It could also be the more deliberate and rather immature gesture of ‘sticking your tongue out at someone’. That usually means either “I hate you” (with an angry face), or “I think what you are doing/offering me is disgusting” (with a disgusted face). Context is important as well as facial expression. That speaks in favour of the interpretation by direct eye-witnesses rather than a post-hoc analysis based on reports of the event. A written description will never capture the moment (nor even a sketch of it).

And given the statements by the various witnesses interpretation was in fact quite ambiguous. Those who wanted more remorse saw it as a lack of remorse. Those who were slightly sympathetic to Wilson’s cause found it a harmless response to a provocation. Let’s be realistic here. If Wilson had wanted to insult anyone he could have given them the finger instead, or some other insulting gesture. He didn’t. If I were a judge in one of the appeals I wouls stay on the safe side and ignore the event entirely.