Discrimination and Instructional Comprehension: Guided Discretion, Racial Bias, and the Death Penalty

By Craig Haney / Mona Lynch / Law and Human Behavior, on 1 January 2000

This study links two previously unrelated lines of research: The lack of comprehension of capital penalty-phase jury instructions and discriminatory death sentencing. Jury-eligible subjects were randomly assigned to view one of four versions of a simulated capital penalty trial in which the race of defendant (Black or White) and the race of victim (Black or White) were varied orthogonally. Dependent measures included a sentencing verdict (life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty), ratings of penalty phase evidence, and a test of instructional comprehension. Results indicated that instructional comprehension was poor overall and that, although Black defendants were treated only slightly more punitively than White defendants in general, discriminatory effects were concentrated among participants whose comprehension was poorest. In addition, the use of penalty phase evidence differed as a function of race of defendant and whether the participant sentenced the defendant to life or death. The study suggest that racially biased and capricious death sentencing may be in part caused or exacerbated by the inability to comprehend penalty phase instructions.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Networks,