A Heavy Thumb on the Scale: The Effect of Victim Iimpact Evidence On Capital Decision Making

By Ray Paternoster / Criminology / Jerome Deise, on 1 January 2011

The past several decades have seen the emergence of a movement in the criminal justice system that has called for a greater consideration for the rights of victims. One manifestation of this movement has been the “right” of victims or victims’ families to speak to the sentencing body through what are called victim impact statements about the value of the victim and the full harm that the offender has created. Although victim impact statements have been a relatively noncontroversial part of regular criminal trials, their presence in capital cases has had a more contentious history. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned previous decisions and explicitly permitted victim impact testimony in capital cases in Payne v. Tennessee (1991). The dissenters in that case argued that such evidence only would arouse the emotions of jurors and bias them in favor of imposing death. A body of research in behavioral economics on the “identifiable victim effect” and the “identifiable wrongdoer effect” would have supported such a view. Using a randomized controlled experiment with a death-eligible sample of potential jurors and the videotape of an actual penalty trial in which victim impact evidence (VIE) was used, we found that these concerns about VIE are perhaps well placed. Subjects who viewed VIE testimony in the penalty phase were more likely to feel negative emotions like anger, hostility, and vengeance; were more likely to feel sympathy and empathy toward the victim; and were more likely to have favorable perceptions of the victim and victim’s family as well as unfavorable perceptions of the offender. We found that these positive feelings toward the victim and family were in turn related to a heightened risk of them imposing the death penalty. We found evidence that part of the effect of VIE on the decision to impose death was mediated by emotions of sympathy and empathy. We think our findings open the door for future work to put together better the causal story that links VIE to an increased inclination to impose death as well as explore possible remedies.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Murder Victims' Families,