Dateline: January, 2011, Issue 4

How are jurors' religious beliefs related to death penalty verdicts?

Jurors who favor the death penalty have different religious beliefs than those opposed to the death penalty.

Miller and Hayward (2007) studied which juror religious beliefs are related to death penalty sentencing recommendations by having nearly 1,000 death-qualified mock jurors make sentencing decisions to a lengthy summary of an actual capital murder trial.

Jurors favoring the death penalty were more likely to be Protestant, have fundamentalist religious beliefs, believe the Bible is to be taken literally, and believe that God supports or requires the death penalty for murders (with this last belief being especially predictive).

Jurors not favoring the death penalty were more likely to hold evangelistic beliefs (though may never have evangelized), believe their religion was less supportive of the death penalty, feel religious beliefs were important to their death penalty position, and base their own death penalty position on their religion's (with this last belief being especially predictive).

Among jurors having the same death penalty attitude - regardless of whether the attitude is one of being strongly in favor, strongly opposed, or somewhere in-between - those who base their attitude on religion are 11% less likely than others to vote for death, and those who believe that God requires the death penalty are 25% more likely to vote for it.

Of note, the importance of religion to an individual, the frequency of religious activity, and the extent of evangelistic activity did not differentiate jurors who favor the death penalty and those who have doubts about it. Nor did jurors favoring or having doubts about the death penalty differ in their views of God's mercy or forgiveness toward criminals.

Systematic religious differences exist between death-qualified jurors who vote for and against the death penalty, although only certain religious beliefs are implicated in these differences.

Source Miller, M. & Hayward, R.D. (2007). Religious characteristics and the death penalty. Law & Human Behavior, 32, pp. 113-123.