Emotion, Proof and Prejudice: The Cognitive Science of Gruesome Photos and Victim Impact Statements

Susan A. Bandes & Jessica M. Salerno.

The current framework for sorting the probative from the prejudicial considers emotion to be the hallmark of unfair prejudice. Emotions elicited by evidence are thought to “inflame” the jury and “cause them to abandon their mental processes.” This inaccurate view of emotion as the enemy of rationality is problematic for evidence law. We argue for a more sophisticated and nuanced view of emotion’s role in evaluating proof and prejudice. We use two types of evidence to illustrate our argument: gruesome photos and victim impact statements.

As some scholars have noted, emotional responses to evidence are not necessarily prejudicial responses. But this observation captures only a small part of the problem with the current evidentiary framework. Emotions do not always lead to prejudice, but they can lead to prejudice in more complex and subtle ways than previously recognized. The emotions elicited by evidence affect not only the decision maker’s appraisal of the evidence, but also the process of deliberation. For example, anger toward the defendant elicited by victim impact statements may result in an inability to remain open to evidence favoring the defense, to greater certainty about the verdict, and to a desire to punish. Other emotions, such as sadness or sympathy, have other effects on the deliberative process.

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