In 1999, two California psychology professors, Craig Haney and Mona Lynch conducted an experiment with 350 people who were eligible jurors. 86 percent of the study group was white, and everyone in the group said he or she would be able to impose a death sentence in at least some situations. Each subject was shown a videotape of what appeared to be the penalty phase of an actual capital murder trial.
Tape from the Haney video experiment:
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen…The judge will instruct you about the law that is to guide you in making a penalty decision. These instructions list certain factors in aggravation and in mitigation. And you will decide how much weight to give them in determining the life or death verdict….(tape continues) He packed a pair of socks, his own athletic dirty socks along with his gun when he headed out to Dominoes that night. He stuffed those soiled socks so deep into the mouth of John Emerson that he nearly choked to death before he had the chance to bleed to death.
According to Professor Haney the videotapes shown to each of the subjects were identical in every detail except one.
| ||LEGAL TERMS DEFINED
Aggravation (aggravating circumstances):
That which increases the enormity of a crime or the injury of a wrong. When a crime has been committed under aggravating circumstances, it is punished with more severity. For example, the crime of aggravated assault is a physical attack made worse because it is committed with a dangerous weapon, results in severe bodily injury or is made in conjunction with another serious crime.
Mitigating Factors / Circumstances
Information about a defendant or the circumstances of a crime that might tend to lessen the sentence or the crime with which the person is charged. This information does not negate an offence or wrongful action, but tends to show that the defendant may have had some grounds for acting the way he/she did. For example, when a starving man steals bread to satisfy his hunger, this circumstance is taken into consideration in mitigation of his sentence.
Deserving blame as wrong or harmful.
"We varied the race of the defendant, either black or white," explains Haney. "And we varied the race of the victim, either black or white."
A judge in each video instructed jurors about which factors to consider in deciding whether the defendant would live or die. Haney found that jurors who understood those instructions sentenced whites and blacks to death at approximately the same rate.
Among the low comprehension participants, there was massive discrimination. The people who understood the instructions poorly were much more likely to sentence the African American defendant to death than they were to sentence the white defendant to death.
Presented with identical facts, 60 percent voted death for the black defendant, but only 40 percent voted death for the white.
When it came to mitigating evidence, that is evidence which was supposed to lessen the defendant's culpability, the largely white jurors were more likely to sentence a drug-abusing white to life and a drug-abusing black to death. Astonishingly, the same held true for child abuse: a white defendant who was abused as a child was more likely to get a life sentence, but a black with the same background got death.
"People who didn't understand the instructions," explained Haney "appeared in a sense to be freed up to act on the basis of their prejudices, to disregard information that was intended to be mitigating when it was presented on behalf of an African-American, but take it into account when it was offered on behalf of a white defendant."
The Supreme Court has been largely unsympathetic to academic studies of racial discrimination among jurors, insisting that bias must be demonstrated in a specific jury with specific evidence. But even when jurors have come forward with that kind of evidence, appeals courts have often rejected it.
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