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South Carolina death penalty, Capital punishment, Capital sentencing, Victim impact evidence, VIE, Victim admirability, Empirical legal studies, Capital Jury Project, CJP


Applied Statistics | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure


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The use of victim impact evidence (VIE) has been a standard feature of capital trials since 1991, when the Supreme Court lifted the previously existing constitutional bar to such evidence. Legal scholars have almost universally condemned the use of VIE, criticizing it on a variety of grounds.

Yet little empirical analysis exists that examines how VIE influences the course and outcome of capital trials. Moreover, the handful of empirical analyses that do exist rely on data gathered in simulation studies. Although valuable contributions have emerged from these experimental studies, such studies have often-rehearsed limitations that stem primarily from a lack of verisimilitude. To begin to complement the experimental findings with real-case data, we analyze the influence of VIE based on interviews with over two-hundred jurors who sat on capital trials in South Carolina between 1985 and 2001.

We pursue three VIE-related topics. First, we describe the VIE introduced at sentencing trials, using a subset of the interviews that posed questions directly focusing on VIE. Second, we analyze a factor closely related to, and influenced by, VIE—a factor we refer to as victim admirability. We find evidence of a strong correlation between victim admirability and VIE use. Victim admirability substantially increases with the increased use and refinement of VIE. In addition, we find some correlation between victim admirability and jurors' perceived seriousness of the crime.

Both increased victim admirability and increased crime seriousness might be expected to push jurors toward imposing death sentences. Our third topic therefore focuses on sentencing outcomes. We study the relation between capital sentencing outcomes and VIE itself, as well as the relation between victim admirability—found to be influenced by VIE—and capital sentencing outcomes. We find no significant relation between increased victim admirability and juror capital sentencing votes, nor do we find a significant relation between the introduction of VIE and sentencing outcomes.

Publication Citation

Published in: Cornell Law Review, vol. 88, no. 2 (January 2003).