Despite guidelines, sentencing decisions can be influenced by irrelevant fac- tors. For example, Birte Englich and others (2006) theorized that judges would be influenced by the well-known “anchoring effect”—the tendency to use one stimulus as an “anchor,” or reference point, in judging a second stimulus. In a series of studies conducted in Germany, these researchers presented legal professionals—mostly judges—with materials about a criminal case. All partic- ipants received the same file except that some files suggested a low sentencing number (1 year) and others a high number (3 years). Regardless of whether the number was presented as a prosecutor’s recommendation, a question from a journalist, or a random roll of the dice, those first exposed to the high anchor point assigned harsher sentences than those exposed to the lower anchor point.
Some influences on this human decision-making process are even more dis- turbing. By combing through U.S. death penalty statistics, researchers long ago discovered that sentencing decisions are consistently biased by race: All else being equal, convicted murderers are more likely to be sentenced to death if they are black or if the victim is white (Baldus et al., 1990). Informed by the racial stereotyping studies, Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues (2006) revisited a number of capital cases involving black defendants, this time looking for an even more subtle effect. For each case, they obtained a photo- graph of the defendant and had college students rate the degree to which he had a stereotypically black appearance—for example, a broad nose, thick lips, and dark skin. Using these ratings, they found that when the victim was black, the defendant’s appearance was unrelated to sentencing. When the victim was white, however, the death penalty odds were predictable by the blackness of the defen- dant’s appearance (24% among the least stereotypical and 58% among the most stereotypical). It seems that there are shades of black that influence whether judges and juries see defendants to be “deathworthy.”