How Defendants’ Legal Status and Ethnicity and Participants’ Political Orientation Relate to Death Penalty Sentencing Decisions

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Abstract

Increases in U.S. immigration and the growth in the Latino population highlight the importance of understanding the influence of ethnicity and legal status on participants’ decision-making. Furthermore, immigration is a politically charged topic, which suggests participants’ political orientation might relate to their decisions in cases involving immigrant defendants. Using the justification-suppression model of prejudice, this study investigated the influence of a defendant’s ethnicity and legal status in the context of a death penalty trial. Results demonstrate that the defendant’s ethnicity did not influence participants’ punishment decisions, but legal status did. Specifically, participants were generally more punitive toward both undocumented and documented immigrant defendants, compared to U.S.-born defendants. Punitiveness toward documented immigrants was qualified by an interaction with participants’ political orientation, such that middle-of-the-road and more liberal participants reported greater punitiveness toward a documented immigrant defendant, compared to a U.S.-born defendant, but more conservative participants reported no differences in punitiveness between documented immigrant defendants and U.S.-born defendants. This effect was mediated by participants’ evaluation of mitigators and aggravators but only among more liberal and middle-of-the-road participants. Implications for policy and future directions are discussed.

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