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Capital punishment, Death penalty, Remorse and capital sentencing, Capital Jury Project, Project, CJP, Remorse as a mitigating factor, Empirical legal studies


Applied Statistics | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure


What role does remorse really play in capital sentencing? We divide this basic question in two. First, what makes jurors come to believe a defendant is remorseful? Second, does a belief in the defendant's remorse affect the jury's final judgment of life or death? Here we present a systematic, empirical analysis that tries to answer these questions.

What makes jurors think a defendant is remorseful? Among other things, we find that the more jurors think that the crime is coldblooded, calculated, and depraved and that the defendant is dangerous, the less likely they are to think the defendant is remorseful. Conversely, the less they think the defendant is responsible for the crime, the more likely they are to believe he is remorseful. The defendant's demeanor during trial also influences jurors' beliefs about remorse.

As for the background and the attitudes of the jurors themselves, we find that jurors with strong views in favor of the death penalty are less likely to think the defendant is remorseful. We also find that while racial factors generally do not influence jurors' beliefs about the defendant's remorse, white women are least likely to believe the defendant is remorseful.

Does a defendant's remorse or lack of remorse affect the sentence he receives? The general answer is yes. The more precise answer is sometimes. Remorse benefits some defendants, but not others. In multivariate models of sentencing outcomes that account for the perceived "viciousness" of the crime, we find that jurors' belief in the defendant's remorse noticeably improves the predictive value of the models--provided jurors do not think the crime is extremely vicious. When jurors do think the crime is extremely vicious, their belief in the defendant's remorse appears to have little influence on the sentence he receives.


Abstract needed.

Publication Citation

Published in: Cornell Law Review, vol. 83, no. 6 (September 1998).