Dateline: December, 2021, Issue 1

Are angry or sad victim impact statements more compelling to jurors?

Almost every state that enforces the death penalty allows for victim impact statements during the penalty phase of the trial.

Nunez and colleagues (2017) examined the effects of angry and sad victim impact statements on 581 jury eligible and death qualified mock jurors. Mock jurors watched the penalty phase of a capital trial. For one group of jurors, the penalty phase had no victim impact statement. For a second group of jurors, the trial included a victim impact statement with emotional content that was sad. For a third group of jurors, the trial included a victim impact statement with emotional content that was angry. Jurors decided either on death or life without parole.

Angry victim impact statements led to more death sentences imposed by jurors, whereas sad victim impact statements did not. Mock jurors hearing the angry victim impact statement also rated the mitigating evidence as less important to their decisions. Importantly, and independently, jurors who reported becoming angry during the trial also were more likely to render a death sentence, while jurors who became sad during the trial were not.

In follow-up research, 192 capital trial victim impact statements were linguistically analyzed (Myers et al., 2018). Sadness was significantly more pervasive than anger in pre-sentencing victim impact statements. While sadness terms were 44% more prevalent than anger terms in testimony, only a small percentage of the total content of victim impact statements was explicitly emotional. Less than .5% of all words in the victim impact statements were angry and only slightly more than .5% were sad. Nonetheless, sadness words occurred more than twice as often as found typically in natural speech and anger words slightly more often than found typically in natural speech. Anger was more likely to be expressed in victim impact statements presented in a free narrative format than in a question-and-answer format.

In sum, victim impact statements are not inherently biasing, nor are all emotions expressed in them equally impactful on sentencing decisions. Sadness occurs more often than anger in victim impact statements, with anger expressed more often in free narrative than question-and-answer presentation formats. While sadness does not increase the likelihood of a death sentence being rendered, anger makes death sentences more likely both when it is expressed in victim impact statements and when felt independently by jurors during trial.

SourceNunez, N., Myers, B., Wilkowski, B.M. & Schweitzer, K. (2017). The impact of angry versus sad victim impact statements on mock jurors' sentencing decisions in a capital trial. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 44(6), pp. 862-886.

SourceMyers, B., Nunez, N., Wilkowski, B.M., Kehn, A. & Dunn, K. (2018). The heterogeneity of victim impact statements: A content analysis of capital trial sentencing penalty phase transcripts. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(4), pp. 474-486.