The effect of mortality salience on death penalty sentencing decisions when the defendant is severely mentally ill

Date10 April 2017
Published date10 April 2017
AuthorBryn Bandt-Law,Daniel Krauss
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Aggression, conflict & peace,Sociology,Gender studies,Gender violence,Political sociology, policy & social change,Social conflicts,War/peace
The effect of mortality salience on death
penalty sentencing decisions when the
defendant is severely mentally ill
Bryn Bandt-Law and Daniel Krauss
Purpose Mortality is a salient factor during capital sentencing. The purpose of this paper is to examine the
role death plays in jurorsdecisions when sentencing a severely mentally ill defendant who is subject to
possible discrimination in a capital trial because of that status.
Design/methodology/approach The current experiment measured venire jurors(n¼133) mental illness
dangerousness beliefs, and then experimentally manipulated type of mortality salience (dual-focused:
participants who contemplated their own mortality and were exposed to trial-related death references vs trial
focused: only exposed to death references) and the type of defendant (severely mentally ill vs neutral)
accused of a capital offense.
Findings Mock jurors perceived mental illness to be an important mitigating factor when dual (i.e. self)
focused mortality (DFM) salience was induced, whereas participants only exposed to trial-related death
references considered mental illness to be an aggravating factor in sentencing and were more likely to
evidence stereotype adherence toward the defendant.
Practical implications The implications of the authorsfindings are problematic for the current
legal system. During the majority of capital sentencing, jurors will only be exposed to trial-related death
references, as individuals in the trial-focused mortality condition were. The findings suggest that
these jurors are likely to engage in discriminatory stereotypes that do not consider fair process when
making sentencing decisions. This research also suggests thatmortality salience may be able to increase
jurorsattention to such concerns in a trial scenario even when negative mental illness stereotypes
are present.
Originality/value Research builds on existing terror management theory and offers a more nuanced
perspective of how focusing on ones own death can affect jurorsreliance on stereotypes and lead to
inappropriate decisions. Mortality salience can lead to decisions based upon procedural fairness when
stereotypes and mortality salience are both present.
Keywords Death penalty, Mental illness, Courtroom, Juror decision making, Mortality salience,
Terror management theory
Paper type Research paper
In capital cases jurors are asked to consider whether a defendant should face execution
for his or her crime, making mortality central to juror decision making in this context.
Empirical research on terror management theory (TMT) has demonstrated that mortality
salience can influence humansbehavior when making legal judgments and can impact
jurorsdecision making (e.g. Greenberg et al., 1997). This study examines the effect of
mortality salience on juror decision making and stereotype adherence for a mentally
ill defendant.
Received 29 April 2016
Revised 4 July 2016
12 August 2016
Accepted 12 August 2016
Bryn Bandt-Law is a Student at
the Department of Psychology,
Claremont McKenna College,
Denver, Colorado, USA.
Daniel Krauss is a Professor at
the Department of Psychology,
Claremont McKenna College,
Claremont, California, USA.
DOI 10.1108/JACPR-04-2016-0225 VOL. 9 NO. 2 2017, pp.141-154, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599

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