Dateline: October, 2007, Issue 5

Do religious appeals most help the prosecution or defense in capital sentencing trials?

Prosecutors and defense attorneys present religious appeals and testimony about a defendant's religious activities at trial to influence capital jurors' sentencing.

Religious appeals have been used in several high profile trials. In the trial of Andrea Yates, the mother in Texas who drowned her five children in her bathtub, the prosecutor told the jury "It was wrong in the eyes of God and it was wrong in the eyes of the law." In the trial of Susan Smith, the mother who killed her two sons and invented a carjacking story to cover up the crime, the defense attorney told the Biblical story of Jesus saving an adulterous woman from being stoned.

Miller and Bornstein (2006) recently explored the effects of religious appeals in capital sentencing decisions. When the prosecution used a religious appeal in this research, it was a Biblical appeal. When the defense used a religious appeal, either it was a Biblical appeal, or the defendant testified he had always been a Christian, or the defendant testified that he had converted to Christianity.

A prosecutor's use of religious appeals had no effect jurors' verdicts. Use of religion by a defense attorney affected both verdicts and the weighing of aggravators and mitigators.

As to verdicts, jurors were least punitive toward a defendant who had converted to Christianity. Jurors were most punitive toward a defendant whose attorney quoted Biblical scripture prescribing mercy.

When there were mostly aggravating circumstances, the defense use of religion did not affect verdicts. When there were several mitigating circumstances, the defense attorney using a Biblical appeal or the defendant testifying that he had always been a Christian interfered with jurors' ability to consider other mitigating evidence properly.

The researcher concluded that religious appeals by defense counsel can be detrimental to a defendant.

Source Miller, M. K. & Bornstein, B. H. (2006). The use of religion in death penalty sentencing trials. Law & Human Behavior, 30, pp. 675-684.