Excerpted From: Hannah J. Phalen, Jessica M. Salerno, Madison Adamoli and Janice Nadler, White Mock Jurors' Moral Emotional Responses to Viewing Female Victim Photographs Depend on the Victim's Race, 47 Law and Human Behavior 666 (December, 2023) (4 Footnotes/References) (Full Document)


Phalen-etal.jpegObjective: Jurors often see both premortem photographs of female murder victims before death and postmortem photographs after death. Postmortem photographs are often probative but might prejudicially heighten jurors' other-condemning emotions, such as anger and disgust. Premortem photographs are often not probative and might prejudicially heighten jurors' other-suffering emotions, such as sympathy and empathy. We examined how victim race changes the impact of pre- and postmortem photographs on participants' moral emotions and, in turn, their verdicts. Hypotheses: We hypothesized that seeing postmortem (vs. no) photographs would increase convictions through other-condemning emotions for White, but not Latina or Black, victims. We also hypothesized that seeing both pre- and postmortem (vs. only postmortem) photographs would further increase convictions through other-suffering emotions, again for White, but not Latina or Black, female victims. Method: White participants (N = 1,261) watched a murder trial video. We manipulated the victim's race (White, Black, or Latina) and whether participants saw no victim photographs, premortem photographs of a female victim, postmortem photographs of a female victim, or both pre- and postmortem photographs. Participants reported the emotions they felt during the trial and chose a verdict. Results: Seeing postmortem (vs. no) victim photographs increased White participants' guilty verdicts through other-condemning emotions when the female victim was White or Latina but not when she was Black. Seeing the combination of pre- and postmortem photographs increased White participants' convictions through other-suffering emotions when the victim was a White woman but not when she was Latina or Black. Conclusions: Attorneys and judges should consider that jurors' emotional reactions to victim photographs are felt selectively depending on the victim's race and could exacerbate racial biases in jurors' judgments.

Public Significance Statement

Rather than closing racial empathy gaps and increasing mock jurors' moral emotional responses for all victims, presenting pre- and postmortem photographs of victims might exacerbate racial bias because White mock jurors selectively felt moral emotions on behalf of other White victims but not on behalf of Black and Latina victims. Although policies that allow for jurors to see premortem photographs of victims might be intended to humanize all victims, those policies might have the unintended consequence of increasing the disparities in the treatment of White victims and victims of color.

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Prior research has suggested that non-White victims are valued less than White victims (Bottoms et al., 2004). One might hope that seeing photographs of these victims might help close those racial disparities by humanizing these victims and helping mock jurors better empathize with victims of other races. And in fact, victims' rights advocates have argued that jurors should be allowed to see photographs of victims while they were alive to help jurors understand who they were and to give victims a voice.

Unfortunately, we did not find evidence to support this idea. Instead, we found that White people who saw the powerful combination of a happy, living victim and then gruesome evidence of that victim's murder selectively felt moral emotions on behalf of other White victims. They felt more other-condemning emotions such as anger and disgust and more other-suffering emotions such as sympathy and empathy for the victim, which in turn were both associated with greater likelihood of convicting the defendant. White mock jurors did not, however, have the same emotional responses to Latina and Black victims--despite their injuries and circumstances surrounding their death being exactly the same. Our results suggest that rather than closing racial empathy gaps, presenting the combination of pre- and postmortem photographs of victims has the potential to exacerbate them. When it comes to the admissibility of these photographs, attorneys and judges should consider the possibility that victim photographs might selectively rouse jurors' moral emotional responses in ways that affect their verdicts for White but not Latina or Black victims-- exacerbating racial bias in the legal system.