Capital sentencing instructions, Jury comprehension, Legal instructions
Previous research has demonstrated that judicial instructions on the law are not well understood by jurors tasked with applying the law to the facts of a case. The past research has also shown that jurors are often confused by the instructions used in the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Social scientists have used two different methods to improve juror understanding of legal instructions, psycholinguistic rewrites and bias-reduction techniques. Psycholinguistic rewrites of legal instructions have been shown consistently to improve juror comprehension of general legal instructions and instructions used in the sentencing phase of a capital trial, however, there has been a call in the literature to not only improve the clarity of judicial instructions but to address comprehension biases that interfere with jurors? ability to understand the instructions. Because a bias-reduction approach has received limited empirical testing and has never been tested on capital-sentencing instructions, this research sought to test the effectiveness of a bias-reduction approach with those instructions. Participants were randomly assigned to hear either Florida's pattern instructions used in the penalty phase of a capital trial or the same instructions with additional statements that mentioned and refuted biases thought to be associated with established areas of miscomprehension. After participants heard the judicial instructions, their understanding of the law on capital punishment decision-making was assessed. Additionally, the participants were asked to render a verdict in a hypothetical case. The results revealed that comprehension was higher for participants exposed to the bias-refutation statements than for participants who were exposed to only the pattern instructions. Among all participants, greater understanding of capital sentencing instructions was associated with an increased likelihood that mock jurors recommended a life sentence, but this observed association was not statistically significant when examining capital-juror eligible participants. The results of this study suggest that efforts should be undertaken to improve specific areas of Florida's capital sentencing instructions.
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Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
College of Health and Public Affairs
Length of Campus-only Access
Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)
Dissertations, Academic -- Health and Public Affairs; Health and Public Affairs -- Dissertations, Academic
Otto, Charles W., "Improving Comprehension Of Capital Sentencing Instructions: A Bias Reduction Approach" (2004). Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2004-2019. 112.