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Use of religious appeals in closing arguments: Policy implications for judges and policy-makers

Monica K Miller, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In their role as advocates, lawyers may rely on religious appeals (e.g. “The Bible dictates ‘an eye for an eye,’ thus a defendant who killed must be put to death”) in closing arguments of death penalty trials, encouraging jurors to use religious instructions in their decision-making. Some courts have determined that emotional religious appeals are improper because they prevent jurors from properly weighing aggravators and mitigators and improperly reduce the jurors' sense of responsibility for making the sentencing decision. ^ It was hypothesized that a dual-processing theory could explain how (and if) religious appeals affect legal decision-making. Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory (CEST) posits that individuals process information through either a “rational” system, which is effortful and logical, or an “experiential” system, which is automatic and based on affect. According to CEST, an individual who experiences an emotionally significant event (e.g., exposure to a religious appeal) is likely to respond experientially instead of rationally, making it difficult to make logical judgments. It was hypothesized that participants receiving religious appeals would be less able to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors properly as compared to individuals who do not receive appeals and thus would be processing information more rationally. ^ Additionally, participants processing more experientially were expected to feel a reduced sense of responsibility for the sentencing decision. Using emotions as a guide, participants were expected to be less able to comprehend and follow instructions, and thus would not fully understand that the responsibility was theirs alone. Similarly, religious appeals were expected to reduce responsibility, as jurors may place responsibility on Biblical authority instead of accepting personal responsibility. ^ It was also of interest to determine if verdicts and processing type could be influenced by processing directives given by the attorney concerning how to make the sentencing decision. Jurors heard an experiential directive (e.g., “Make the sentencing decision using your gut feelings”), a rational directive (e.g., “Make the sentencing decision by closely following the instructions”) or no directive. Experiential directives were expected to lead to experiential processing of information and reduce the ability to weigh aggravators and mitigators properly. ^ Two experimental studies were conducted. The first study investigated the effects of prosecutorial appeals and directives, while the second study investigated the effects of defense appeals and directives. These initial studies indicate that appeals do not affect weighing of aggravators and mitigators or personal responsibility. (Abstract shortened by UMI.) ^

Subject Area

Religion, General|Law|Psychology, Social|Political Science, Public Administration

Recommended Citation

Miller, Monica K, "Use of religious appeals in closing arguments: Policy implications for judges and policy-makers" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3131550.