The heterogeneity of victim impact statements: A content analysis of capital trial sentencing penalty phase transcripts.

Victim impact statements (VISs) are controversial in capital sentencing proceedings largely due to their questionable relevance to sentencing, the concern that characterizations of the victim may lead to arbitrary sentencing judgments, and the belief that the emotional nature of this evidence may be inflammatory. A sample of 192 capital trial VIS transcripts was analyzed for content as well as a linguistic analysis of emotionality. The findings reveal that these statements are highly varied, including their format, length, and relation between the witness and the victim. Despite a legislative mandate that they address the emotional, financial, and physical suffering experienced by victim survivors, testimony of this nature occurs in a minority of the cases. Most commonly, these statements tend to characterize the victim and their qualities, relay the witness’ shock at first learning of the victim’s death (i.e., trauma narratives), and address the significance of the deceased to the family unit. In approximately one third of the transcripts reviewed, the witness made mention of the defendant, but this rarely included any mention of a desire for vengeance or recommended punishment. Linguistic analysis revealed that emotional content was prevalent throughout the testimony, with sadness emerging as more pervasive than anger. However, the degree of emotional language contained in these statements was not particularly high—and was comparable to that typically encountered in everyday life (e.g., newspapers, novels). Implications, particularly with regard to the potential for VISs to be considered inflammatory, are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)