Does the group make a difference? A look at the factors that impact perceptions of group deliberations and sentencing outcomes in capital trials

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Traditional research into the mechanisms by which jurors in capital cases make punishment decision focuses on one of two relationships: the relationship between a juror's individual characteristics and a sentencing outcome or the relationship between trial level characteristics and a sentencing outcome. Many significant findings have come from this type of research, most notably that arbitrariness still exists in the application of capital punishment. This arbitrariness takes on various forms, including poor comprehension of sentencing instructions (Bowers and Foglia, 2003; Foglia, 2003), racial bias in sentencing decisions (Baldus et al,. 1998; Bowers et al., 2001; Bowers et al., 2004), and a homogenization of the jury pool through the process of death qualification (Haney. 1984). What this research has failed to address, however, is the role that the act of deliberation may have on the relationship between these individual and trial level characteristics and their ensuing impact on sentencing outcomes. The current study addresses this shortcoming by focusing on the role that the process of deliberation has on the juror's perception of the group functioning, measured here through the construct of group climate. The predictors of group climate are examined and the subsequent impact of group climate on sentencing outcomes is explored. The results suggest individual juror level characteristics do not have a direct effect on sentencing outcome; rather, the level of group climate acts as a mediating variable between individual characteristics and sentencing outcomes. Trial level characteristics, however, both directly predict to sentencing outcome and indirectly operate through the level of group climate. Group climate is the strongest predictor of sentencing outcome, with juries who have more positive perceptions of group climate more likely to return the death penalty. These results and their implications are discussed in detail, as are suggestions for both future research and the future of capital punishment.