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The Influence of Victim Gender and Emotional Expression in Victim Impact Statements on Legal Judgments and Punishment Decisions

Victim impact statements (VISs) are written or oral statements detailing the effects a crime has had on a victim. While the practice of having victims present VISs at sentencing hearings has generated much debate for over 25 years, the effects of this practice on victims, defendants, and legal decision-makers remain poorly understood. Prior research suggests that a victim’s emotional expression can affect how victims are perceived, and the legal judgments made in response to their statements. The current research considers how the effects of victims’ emotional displays on sentencing decisions might be conditioned by victim gender. Using audio-recorded VIS stimuli, the present research investigated the influence of victim gender (male vs. female) and emotional expression (Study 1: anger vs. sadness; Study 2: anger vs. sadness vs. flat affect) on legal judgments and punishment decisions. The results across Study 1 and Study 2 are inconsistent, though findings from the study (Study 2) with the substantially larger sample size suggest that individuals make legal judgments that are more favorable towards female victims, regardless of the victim’s emotion expression in a VIS. However, hostile sexism and gender-emotion stereotype endorsement moderated the effects of victim emotion expression and gender on sentence severity and empathy for a defendant.