For the past 2 years, I have been fortunate to work on a Division 48 Presidential Task Force. The Task Force was formed by past president Rachel MacNair and was designed to study the psychological impacts of the death penalty. Our research team was asked to address 8 research questions. I was assigned two research questions, which addressed the psychological impact of the death penalty on capital jurors and cross-cultural variables. As I began to research my topics I had no idea of the number of professional opportunities that would lie ahead.
Prior to the 2014 APA Convention, I had the opportunity to present death penalty research at the 2013 APA Convention in Hawaii (my first visit) and the 2014 British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Birmingham, England. Representing Division 48 and APA at an international conference has been the highlight of my graduate school experience. I feel honored to be in a position to help inform the mental health community, both domestically and abroad, about the psychological effects of the death penalty.
My research on capital jurors consists of two subtopics: juror decision-making and juror mental health. In terms of the first topic research indicates that capital jurors use moral disengagement to render death sentences. There are 4 mechanisms through which moral disengagement occur (Haney, 1997). The first mechanism is bureaucratic dehumanization of the defendant. Jurors are guided to see the defendant solely as the perpetrator of a hideous crime absent any other context. Additionally, the prolonged period of time prosecutors have to dehumanize the defendant lead jurors to crystalize and rigidify their impressions long before defense attorneys are allowed to make counter-arguments. The second mechanism is exaggeration of differences, which leads jurors to view the defendant as fundamentally different from themselves. In a survey of 187 capital jurors, only 24% of the jurors could imagine themselves in the defendant’s situation (Garvey, 2000). Self-protection is the third mechanism. Because jurors often do not identify with the defendant, strong emotions invoked in death penalty cases often exaggerate the juror’s natural impulse toward self-protection and self-preservation. The final and most widespread mechanism is diffusion of personal responsibility. Due to the judicial appeals process, jurors minimize their role in executions by laying ultimate responsibility on the criminal justice system rather than their own decisions (Ofsofsky, Bandura, & Zimbardo, 2005).
Research on the second topic indicates that capital jurors exhibit PTSD symptoms up to 9 months after rendering a death sentence. The Capital Jury Project interviewed 534 capital jurors and found that 61% of jurors interviewed experienced PTSD symptoms (Antonio, 2006). These symptoms included: Emotional instability, paranoia, insomnia, nightmares, regret, depression, anxiety, and hyper- vigilance. The symptoms persisted for 2 months after the death penalty decision was rendered. Several jurors described stress symptoms that lasted for over 9 months (Watson, Eth, & Leong, 2012).
Presenting this research at this year’s APA Convention was a great experience. I was encouraged by the large turnout at the symposium presentation and the active engagement of the audience.
Titus M. Hamlett, M.A.
Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student
Family/Child and Couples Emphasis (FACE)
California School of Professional Psychology
Alliant International University, Los Angeles
Advocacy Chair, California Psychological Association Graduate Students
Chair, Student Advocacy Group (SAG)
Antonio, M. E. (2006). Juror’s emotional reactions to serving on a capital trail.
Judicature, 89(5), 282-288.
Garvey, S. P. (2000). The emotional economy of capital sentencing. New York
University Law Review, 75, 26-73.
Haney, C. (1997). Violence and the capital jury: Mechanisms of moral
disengagement and the impulse to condemn to death. Stanford Law
Review, 49(6), 1447-1486.
Osofsky, M. J., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2005). The role of moral
disengagement in the execution process. Law and Human Behavior,