Victim Impact Statements and Perceived Victim Race/Ethnicity: Effects of Juror Background Characteristics




Sheppard, Colleen E.

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Victim impact statements were introduced as a means to help victims heal through their participation in the adjudication process. Although victims do seem to benefit from the composition of these statements, when they are introduced at trial, defendants may not receive fair and impartial hearings. Impact statements may bring bias into sentencing decisions, as they may make jurors more aware of victim suffering and thus more likely to sentence the defendant more severely. The present study examined whether mock jurors sentence defendants more harshly if they have read a victim impact statement, and whether the severity of the sentence is dependent upon the victim’s race or ethnicity. These questions were examined with undergraduate students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The study finds that victim impact statements do not directly relate to the severity of a defendant’s sentence, and also that participants who did not read impact statements were as likely as those who did to mention victim harm as a justification for their sentencing decision. Similarly, the victim’s race or ethnicity did not seem to matter as it did not affect the suggested sentences for the defendant. Some participants did, however, infer extra-legal characteristics from the victim statements, and others made racist remarks. Further, the participants’ background and knowledge of criminal justice was evident in their sentencing, particularly through a focus on restorative justice, signifying the importance of exercising caution when selecting jurors.



Victim, Impact, Sentence, Race, Juror