The findings provide insight into the role that emotion plays in jurors' decision-making processes, indicating a close relationship between sympathy and mitigation.
In the study, the researchers, led by Makiko Yamada of National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, considered cases where juries were given the option to lessen the sentences for convicted murderers. In such cases with "mitigating circumstances," jurors are instructed to consider factors, sometimes including emotional elements, that might cause them to have sympathy for the criminal and, therefore, shorten the sentence. An example would be a case in which a man killed his wife to spare her from a more painful death, say, from a terminal illness.
"Finding out if jurors are weighing sympathy reasonably is difficult to do, objectively," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Finance and Economics at Caltech. "Instead of asking the jurors, we asked their brains."