Social psychological research has focused on several of these psychological and behavioral factors that could bias capital sentencing. First is the death qualification of jurors. Several studies demonstrate that death-qualified juries are more likely to be conviction prone and biased toward death than juries that include non-death qualified jurors. Second, poor comprehension of sentencing instructions has been clearly demonstrated.
A misunderstanding could lead to the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty; however, it is suspected that the pattern of misunderstanding is more likely to bias jurors toward a sentence of death. Third, it has been suggested that in order for jurors to follow the instructions, not only must they comprehend the instructions but the instructions must also address erroneous beliefs that jurors bring with them to the courtroom. Finally, the current research explores the fourth source of bias – the instructions themselves. That is, the procedures jurors are required to follow may lead them to a particular sentencing decision, Le, death. The literature on death qualification, comprehension of instructions and prior knowledge as reasons for biased sentencing will be reviewed before introducing the instructions as a source of bias for the dissertation. Death Qualification.
All jurors selected for a trial in which a death penalty is an option must be death qualified. That is, because death is an option, they must be able to follow the law and consider death as an alternative in the sentencing decision. During the selection, process jurors are asked their attitudes about the death penalty and more specifically whether they would be willing to impose the death penalty (if appropriate) if the defendant were found guilty (Witherspoon v Illinois. 19681). If the juror is not willing to impose the death penalty he or she is either excused or “rehabilitated” to see if there are at least some circumstances under which juror could impose the death penalty. If the juror is willing to impose the death penalty, i.e. follow the law, then he or she remains as a juror (unless excused for other causes or by peremptory challenge). This procedure leads to what is known as a “death-qualified” jury.