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New Study Examines Role of Emotion, Race, in Capital Penalty Jury Deliberations

December 16, 2014, Press releases

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Research reveals how jurors in capital cases use emotion and racial bias to persuade fellow jurors in deciding life-or-death sentences

Chicago, IL – December 16, 2014 - The results of a new research study published in Law and Social Inquiry, Journal of the American Bar Foundation, reveal the critical role that emotions play in the outcome of the death sentencing process. When deliberating over the penalty in a capital case, emotional arguments prove especially powerful in moving jurors to support death sentences. The study found that this effect is even more pronounced when white men serve as jury leaders and when the defendant is African-American.

Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations,”(published 12/11/2014) by psychologists Mona Lynch and Craig Haney features data drawn from 90 videotaped separate jury deliberations on a simulated capital penalty case where jurors were asked to decide between life in prison or the death penalty. The juries were composed of four to seven persons on each panel. The race of the defendant and victim varied between simulations, but in each scenario jurors weighed the violent nature of the defendant’s crime against the abuse the defendant had suffered during childhood. The authors explore how race affects death sentencing by examining the jurors’ emotional reactions to the case, how individual jurors’ emotions were acknowledged within the group, and what members emerged as leaders during jury deliberations.

According to Lynch and Haney, “experimental studies of capital jury decision-making have documented the effects of racial bias in death sentencing, including the way that the jury deliberation process operates to amplify them. By analyzing the actual deliberations of our small groups, we were able to identify some of the ways that racial discrimination manifests itself in this setting.” They discovered that “death sentencing is not an exclusively ‘cool,’ cognitive process but, especially when racial issues are involved, has strong emotional components as well.”

Although much of the jury deliberations centered on the events that led to the crime, Lynch and Haney conclude it was the meaning that jury members attached to these events that most influenced the jury’s eventual verdict. The authors found that jury members unselfconsciously talked about negative feelings toward the defendant’s crime and the defense testimony, but were cautious and apologetic when expressing sympathy with the defendant’s background. Jurors favoring a life sentence tended to have more difficulty than jurors favoring a death sentence in using emotion to express their positions. White male jurors, however, whether for or against a death sentence, showed the most ease in using emotion-based strategies to argue their viewpoints. White male jurors often used their elected positions as jury leaders to argue for life (most often in the white defendant conditions) because of a personal reaction to the defendant’s background or for death (most often in the black defendant conditions) often drawing from implicit racial stereotypes to assess a defendant’s culpability.

The findings in “Emotion, Authority, and Death” show how emotional claims and counter-claims are made and understood by juries through the deliberative process. The study shows evidence not only that emotion plays an important role in jury deliberations, as prior research argues, but also that it is deployed strategically by jury members in ways that often reveal racial and gender bias.

About the Authors

Mona Lynch is a Professor of Criminology, Law & Society, and Law at the University of California-Irvine. Her research interests focus on the social and psychological dynamics of the punishment process, and her upcoming work will appear in books published by the New York University Press, Oxford University Press, and Palgrave Macmillan.

Craig Haney is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of Legal Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His research explores how social psychology applies to legal and civil rights issues, and his current projects study the psychological effects of different forms of punishment and pre-trial publicity.

For more information on the study or the dataset, contact Mona Lynch at

About Law &Social Inquiry

Law & Social Inquiry, The Journal of the American Bar Foundation (LSI) is a quarterly, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed academic journal published by Wiley-Blackwell. Contributors of socio-legal content include legal academics and social scientists from around the world. LSI’s current Editor is Christopher W. Schmidt, and Howard S. Erlanger serves as Review Section Editor.

About the American Bar Foundation

The American Bar Foundation (ABF) is the nation's leading research institute for the empirical study of law. The ABF’s mission is to serve the legal profession, the public, and the academy through empirical research, publications, and programs that advance justice and the understanding of law and its impact on society. Primary funding for the ABF is provided by the American Bar Endowment.

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