Study: Southerners on Death Row Are More Apologetic

Although they don’t necessarily mean it.

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. 
National Journal
Brian Resnick
See more stories about...
Brian Resnick
April 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

In 2007, while Jerry Mar­tin was serving time for at­temp­ted murder, he tried to es­cape. La­bor­ing on a work as­sign­ment out­side the cor­rec­tion­al in­sti­tu­tion, he stole a truck and rammed it in­to a moun­ted po­lice of­ficer. The of­ficer was killed, and Mar­tin was sen­tenced to die.

Be­fore the state of Texas in­jec­ted him with leth­al drugs on Dec. 3 of last year, Mar­tin said this:

I would like to tell the Can­field fam­ily I’m sorry; sorry for your loss. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. I hope this gives you clos­ure. I did not murder your loved one, it was an ac­ci­dent. I didn’t mean for it to hap­pen. I take full re­spons­ib­il­ity.

His fi­nal words were an apo­logy.


It may be a strange ques­tion for a psy­cho­lo­gist to ask — see­ing how re­l­at­ively few people end up on death row — but what is the right thing to say in such a cir­cum­stance?

It turns out cul­ture may play a role.

“When most of the factors that might in­flu­ence an apo­logy for a crim­in­al trans­gres­sion (e.g., the threat of harsh­er pun­ish­ment or a hope for le­ni­ency, the threat of re­tali­ation) are stripped away, is south­ern po­lite­ness still ap­par­ent in of­fend­ers from the U.S. South?” Judy Eaton, a psy­cho­lo­gist at Laur­i­er Bran­ford Uni­versity in Canada, asks in a pa­per pub­lished re­cently in the journ­al Sage Open.

To see if cul­ture in­forms last words, Eaton read every fi­nal death-row state­ment avail­able between 2000 to 2011, and sor­ted each by re­gion of the United States — in­to South­ern and non-South­ern cat­egor­ies to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. Then, she searched for apo­lo­get­ic con­tent in every state­ment. The sub­ject pool was small — 299 South­ern­ers and 60 non-South­ern­ers. But then, only 679 people were ex­ecuted in the United States dur­ing that time. This is as big of a test as Eaton could run.

South­ern of­fend­ers were two times more likely to apo­lo­gize for their crimes in their fi­nal words, Eaton found. But there’s a caveat. “This does not ne­ces­sar­ily mean that south­ern­ers were more re­morse­ful, however,” her pa­per con­cludes. “The ana­lys­is re­vealed that they were not more likely than non-south­ern­ers to ex­press re­morse, defined as the ex­tent to which they ac­cep­ted re­spons­ib­il­ity, asked for for­give­ness, ex­pressed re­gret, and ap­peared to be earn­est.”

So the South­ern­ers were more likely to say the words, but not ne­ces­sar­ily more likely to mean them.

There are many way re­search­ers find that South­ern cul­ture in­flu­ences every­day in­ter­ac­tions. It re­volves around what psy­cho­lo­gists call a “cul­ture of hon­or,” in which people want to be seen as be­ing hon­or­able (po­lite, char­it­able, apo­lo­get­ic), but also will de­fend that hon­or when  con­fron­ted by a per­son­al at­tack.

It’s a small ex­ample of how cul­ture im­prints on us. It’s what we fall back on, when there’s noth­ing else left.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Finance Guru Has History of Contributing to Dems
1 minutes ago

"Like Donald Trump himself, the Trump campaign’s new national finance chairman has a long history of contributing to Democrats—including Hillary Clinton. Private investor Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s new campaign fundraising guru, has contributed more than $120,000" to candidates since 1995, about half of which has gone to Democrats.

Paul Ryan Can’t Get Behind Trump
16 hours ago

Paul Ryan told CNN today he's "not ready" to back Donald Trump at this time. "I'm not there right now," he said. Ryan said Trump needs to unify "all wings of the Republican Party and the conservative movement" and then run a campaign that will allow Americans to "have something that they're proud to support and proud to be a part of. And we've got a ways to go from here to there."

Trump Roadmapped His Candidacy in 2000
18 hours ago

The Daily Beast has unearthed a piece that Donald Trump wrote for Gear magazine in 2000, which anticipates his 2016 sales pitch quite well. "Perhaps it's time for a dealmaker who can get the leaders of Congress to the table, forge consensus, and strike compromise," he writes. Oddly, he opens by defending his reputation as a womanizer: "The hypocrites argue that a man who loves and appreciates beautiful women (and does so legally and openly) shouldn't become a national leader? Is there something wrong with appreciating beautiful women? Don't we want people in public office who show signs of life?"

Sen. Murphy: Trump Shouldn’t Get Classified Briefigs
18 hours ago
Romney to Skip Convention
19 hours ago

An aide to Mitt Romney confirmed to the Washington Post that the 2102 GOP nominee will not attend the Republican convention this year. He joins the two living Republican presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, as well as 2008 nominee John McCain in skipping the event. Even among living Republican nominees, that leaves only Bob Dole who could conceivably show up. Dole did say in January that he'd prefer Trump to Ted Cruz, but his age (92) could keep him from attending.