STUDIES: The Effect of Victim Impact Evidence in Capital Trials

A study recently published in the journal Criminology meaured the effects of victim impact evidence (VIE) on the likelihood of the jury returning a death sentence. The study was conducted by Professors Raymond Paternoster and Jerome Deise of the University of Maryland.  It involved 135 participants who watched a video recording of an actual capital trial. Seventy-three participants watched the full video, while the remaining 62 participants watched a version with the victim impact evidence (typically, statements about the value of the victim and the effect his or her death has had on the rest of the family) edited out. Among those who viewed the victim impact evidence, 62.5% said they would impose a death sentence on the offender, while only 17.5% of those who did not view this evidence would have done the same.  Among those who did not view victim impact evidence, 44.4% said they would impose a sentence of life without parole and another 38.1% would have voted for a straight life sentence. The study concluded that, "those who viewed victim impact testimony perceived significantly more harm and suffering inflicted on the victim’s family, a greater emotional loss inflicted on the family by the murder, and were significantly less likely to think that the victim’s family was coping well with the murder… those who viewed VIE and those who actually imposed a death sentence were significantly more likely to think that a sentence of death would help the victim’s family find closure or help them recover from their loss.”

(R. Paternoster and J. Deise, "A Heavy Thumb on the Scale: The Effect of Victim Impact Evidence on Capital Decision Making," (link to abstract) 21 Criminology 129 (2011)).  See Victims and Studies.