The Potential for Bias in Capital Juries

Article excerpt

Note on Research

The Potential for Bias in Capital Juries*

In recent years, the death penalty has grown more popular with the general public. According to Gallup Polls, 66 percent of Americans favor capital punishment for those convicted of murder (Gallup, 2000). Other survey research indicates that as much as 80 percent of the general public supports the death penalty (Borg, 1997; Fox, Radelet, and Bonsteel, 1990-91; Moore, 1994:4; Young, 1992). This development has led scholars to wonder if these attitudes extend to bias in capital juries.

This study explores the issue of potential bias in capital juries and attempts to identify the correlates of juror attitudes about the death penalty in two Louisiana parishes: East Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa. While both parishes are located in the southeastern area of the state, East Baton Rouge is more densely populated and is the seat of government for the state. Tangipahoa's population is more widely distributed and more rural than that of East Baton Rouge. Despite these differences, both parishes yielded similar population characteristics in this study. Sixty-seven percent of the Tangipahoa population indicated support for the death penalty, compared to 65 percent in East Baton Rouge. In Tangipahoa, 8 percent of respondents identified themselves as liberal and 49 percent as conservative, while 13 percent of East Baton Rouge respondents identified themselves as liberal and 39 percent as conservative. Partisan identification was very similar, with Tangipahoa yielding 46 percent Democrat and 37 percent Republican; East Baton Rouge was 43 percent Democrat and 38 percent Republican. Income levels were comparable, as well, with a mean of $32,556 in Tangipahoa and $37,530 in East Baton Rouge. Race distributions differed, as Tangipahoa yielded a population of 82 percent white and 18 percent black, while East Baton Rouge was 66 percent white and 33 percent black (Mitchell, 1998; Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1998; Southern Media and Opinion Research, 1996).

Research Framework

As stated previously, recent polls indicate that between 74 and 80 percent of Americans favor the death sentence over life imprisonment (Borg, 1997; Fox, Radelet, and Bonsteel, 1990-91; Moore, 1994:4; Young, 1992). In one of the study sites, East Baton Rouge Parish, similar patterns have been noted. For example, from 1977 to 1989, jurors handed down life sentences in 86 percent of the first-degree murder trials and voted for the death penalty in only 13 percent of the cases.1 Yet from 1990 to 2001, jurors chose the death penalty for 94 percent of the first-degree murder cases and voted for life sentences in only 6 percent of these trials (District Attorney's Office of East Baton Rouge Parish current records). These numbers illustrate not only a shift in favor of the death penalty, but a virtual reversal in the propensity to vote for life sentences versus capital punishment. Shifts in both support for capital punishment and jury decisions in capital cases prompt this study of potential jury bias.

Social science recognizes religious practice as one of the most powerful influences on attitudes that tie into juror bias. Allport and Ross found that religious practice correlates highly with authoritarian attitudes, political intolerance, conservatism, and racial bias (Allport and Ross, 1967; Rokeach, 1969, 1970). In this research, churchgoers exhibited more racial bias than those who did not attend church, and the intensity of bias increased with the frequency of church attendance. In similar studies, Baptists and Christian fundamentalists demonstrated greater political conservatism and intolerance than all other denominations, leading researchers to conclude that "those who are highly and indiscriminately religious are very authoritarian with a higher tendency toward punitiveness and racial bias" (Russell, 1994:80; Erikson, Luttberg, and Tedin, 1988).

Social psychology research contends that people who exhibit these punitive attitudes and a bias toward conviction also favor the death penalty (Russell, 1994:85; Moran and Comfort, 1986; Bronson, 1970, 1981; Haney, 1980; Jurow, 1971). …