Making a murder: How death-related psychological terror explains jury outcomes

A. Kheibari

University of Kentucky, College of Social Work, Lexington, KY,

Are we motivated by a deep existential fear to believe that Steven Avery is guilty for the murder of Teresa Halbach? Terror Management Theory would suggest so. According to TMT, human beings face the fundamental paradox of mortality that arises from the realization that death is inevitability and yet terrifyingly inconceivable. As a result, reminders of our own mortality lead us to negatively evaluate those who threaten our beliefs about the world and engage in the impulse to punish dissimilar others. This presentation will argue that death-related psychological terror is a major factor driving human behavior – particularly violent and discriminatory behavior – and a biased inclination to deliver a guilty verdict in criminal cases, such as the Steven Avery trial. The theories included in this presentation have had a wealth of empirical support and continue to contribute to our understanding of wrongful convictions, false confessions, jury decision-making, and societal perceptions of criminals. Thus, it is important to educate legal and forensic practitioners about issues regarding the cognitive biases that influence judicial outcomes for disadvantaged individuals, especially minorities. Presenting a new perspective on the factors contributing to a criminally unjust judicial system will draw attention to ways in which biases can be minimized through policy reform.