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Does ‘death qualification’ systematically bias our juries?

Monday, January 31, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Despite reports that death penalty use and support continue to decline and stories of freed innocent prisoners,  researchers continue to explore the impact of ‘death qualification’ on the makeup of American juries.

Recently, a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, examined whether the ‘death qualification’ process in jury selection systematically excludes jurors based on “religious characteristics, justice philosophy, cognitive processing and demographics”. You may think you know the answers to these questions, and you are probably right.

Religious characteristics:

Catholics were more likely to be excluded by the death qualification process as were those higher in ‘devotionalism’ (a rating of the importance of religion in one’s life). Those who interpreted the Bible literally and those who scored higher in fundamentalism were more likely to be ‘death qualified’. ‘Evangelism’ (how active is the person in sharing their beliefs with others) was not a significant predictor of either inclusion or exclusion in a ‘death qualified’ jury.

Justice philosophy:

The more participants agreed with the statement that “murderers deserve to be killed”, the more likely they would be included in a ‘death qualified’ jury.

Cognitive processing:

Cognitive processing (are you a complex thinker or not) was not related to death qualification in this study.


Gender and race predicted death qualification while age and prior jury experience did not. Women and racial minorities were more likely to be excluded from juries.

This research is certainly consistent with earlier research showing that females and minorities are more likely to be excluded from a capital jury as well as research showing more fundamentalist religious beliefs tend to result in being ‘death qualified’. The researchers opine that this systematic exclusion of certain groups likely results in perceptions that the justice system is unfair and will not result in a fair trial.

It’s a really thorny issue. Regardless of your political and personal feelings about the death penalty—juries are being required to make life (with the possibility of redemption) and death (no possibility for redemption) decisions based on evidence they hear presented in court.

Given the high number of people opposed to the death penalty, in capital cases the underlying decisions about guilt and innocence are being made by those who are most judgmental.  For some, the death penalty represents a form of legal killing that is as reprehensible as any other decision to elect an end to a life.  For others, it arises from a sense that “juries make mistakes”, and they are not going to risk compounding one horrible crime with a wrongful death by execution.  So what that leaves is a jury of people who are willing to trust their own judgment to make the right call when ending a life is in the balance.  As this research shows, it is a subset of America that is identifiable by their beliefs on other matters.

Summers, A., Hayward, RD, & Miller, MK (2010). Death qualification as systematic exclusion of jurors with certain religious and other characteristics. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (12)

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