Dateline: October, 2021, Issue 1

How does defendant ethnicity and immigrant status affect sentencing in capital cases?

During penalty phase deliberations in capital cases, jurors are expected to weigh legally-specified aggravators and mitigators to reach a sentence of life in prison without parole or death. Jurors typically are instructed to exclude extralegal factors irrelevant to the decision. Examples of extralegal factors include a defendant's ethnicity and immigrant status.

West and colleagues (2021) explored how mock jurors used aggravators and mitigators when making capital sentencing decisions of defendants of differing immigrant statuses and ethnicities. Death-qualified, mostly Caucasian (83%) mock jurors were provided a capital case trial summary in which the defendant was described either as a U.S. born Caucasian American, a documented Mexican immigrant or an undocumented Mexican immigrant. The trial summary included either high aggravating circumstances (4 aggravators and 2 mitigators) or high mitigating circumstances (2 aggravators and 4 mitigators). After reading the trial summary, mock jurors reported the degree to which mitigators outweighed aggravators and recommended a sentence (death or LWOP).

When the defendant was a Latino citizen and when the defendant was an undocumented immigrant, mock jurors weighed aggravators over mitigators.

Mock jurors with more rational (slow, logical, deliberate) versus experiential (quick, intuitive, emotional) thinking supported mitigators more and were better able to weigh aggravators and mitigators.

The researchers note that this bias against Latino immigrant defendants is not limited to capital cases. In research on a non-capital case, mock jurors were more likely to convict an undocumented Mexican immigrant of low socioeconomic status than an undocumented Canadian immigrant of low or high socioeconomic status or a documented Mexican immigrant of low or high socioeconmic status (Espinoza et al., 2015).

In sum, prejudice toward Latino immigrant defendants exists in both guilt and sentencing decisions of jurors. A defendant's immigrant status and ethnicity lead indirectly to punitive decisions in capital cases because they influence how jurors weigh aggravators and mitigators.

Source Espinoza, R.K.E, Willis-Esqueda, C., Toscano, S., & Coons, J. (2015). The impact of ethnicity, immigration status, and socioeconomic status on juror decision making. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 13(3), pp.197-216.

Source West, M.P., Wood, E.F., Miller, M.K., & Bornstein, B. H. (2021). How mock jurors’ cognitive processing and defendants’ immigrant status and ethnicity relate to decisions in capital trials. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 17(3), pp.423-432.