Capital Punishment Decisions Hinge On Jurors Who May Not Understand Their Task

January 14, 1997

People called upon to sit on juries for capital crimes often do not understand the language of the law, the factors they are supposed to weigh in considering a sentence, or even that they have final responsibility for imposing punishment. New research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) seeks ways to improve the judgment of jurors who literally make life and death decisions.

Richard L. Wiener, a psychologist at Saint Louis University who studies how juries make decisions, has received a three-year research grant for almost $200,000 from NSF to identify the most pervasive and problematic errors jurors commit which may influence deliberations and final sentencing in first-degree murder trials.

Earlier research shows that potential jurors do not reliably comprehend instructions which direct them to weigh "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors to determine whether to sentence a defendant to life in prison or to death. Wiener says many jurors are not clear about the legal definition of these terms, and are often confused about the difference between "counting" and "weighing" these critical factors. Many misunderstand what it means to find a defendant worthy of the death penalty "beyond a reasonable doubt," he says.

Not only do many jurors not comprehend legal terms, they may not understand legal procedures.

"Some jurors may base a decision to impose the death penalty on the belief that the final responsibility of imposing a sentence rests with the judge," says Wiener; "however, punishment in first-degree murder cases is the responsibility of the jury."

In the first part of his NSF-supported research, Wiener will interview potential jurors to assess their understanding of the legal process, such basic terms as "mitigating," and what the law in their states expects of juries in capital cases. Wiener and his team of researchers will develop modifications to common court procedures to help jurors better understand their responsibilities and make decisions that are more consistent with the law.

Wiener intends next to test his innovations with potential jurors. During jury simulations, he plans to show volunteers videotapes of the guilt and penalty phases of re-enacted murder trials and allow them to arrive at their own decisions. His modifications include presenting jurors a list of common conceptual errors to avoid in court, and using a diagrammed flow chart to trace the procedural path for jury decision-making rather than relying on a traditional description in legal language.

Evaluating the resulting decisions of mock juries should "contribute to a better understanding of how to improve the present process of guiding jurors in America's courtrooms," says Harmon Hosch, who directs NSF's Law and Social Science Research Program.
-end-


National Science Foundation

Related Decisions Articles from Brightsurf:

Consumers value difficult decisions over easy choices
In a paper co-authored by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, researchers found that disfluency, or the difficulty for an individual to process a message, increases people's attitudes toward that message after a time delay.

Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.

Decisions made for incapacitated patients often not what families want
Researchers from Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University report in a study published in JAMA Network Open that nearly half of the time medical treatments and orders received for incapacitated patients were not compatible with goals of care requested by their surrogate decision makers.

Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?
A new process to harness multiple disease models for outbreak management has been developed by an international team of researchers.

For complex decisions, narrow them down to two
When choosing between multiple alternatives, people usually focus their attention on the two most promising options.

Fungal decisions can affect climate
Research shows fungi may slow climate change by storing more carbon.

How decisions unfold in a zebrafish brain
Researchers were able to track the activity of each neuron in the entire brain of zebrafish larvae and reconstruct the unfolding of neuronal events as the animals repeatedly made 'left or right' choices in a behavioral experiment.

Best of the best: Who makes the most accurate decisions in expert groups?
New method predicts accuracy on the basis of similarity.

How do brains remember decisions?
Mammal brains -- including those of humans -- store and recall impressive amounts of information based on our good and bad decisions and interactions in an ever-changing world.

How we make complex decisions
MIT neuroscientists have identified a brain circuit that helps break complex decisions down into smaller pieces.

Read More: Decisions News and Decisions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.