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
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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.

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