Structural complexity and moral transparency in penalty phase narratives
Narratives matter. They shape the social world in which they circulate, reflecting and refracting the cultural limits of what narratives can be told, in what setting, to whom. From this perspective, they structure how we make sense of ourselves, as members of a community, but they also structure how we understand right and wrong, good and evil. Nowhere is this more apparent than in capital murder trials in which the narratives that are constructed are literally life and death matters. The research on narrative processes in capital trials documents how the courtroom is a place for “story-battles” where each narrative works to disqualify the other and legitimize itself, in an effort to structure jurors’ decisions. This is accentuated in the penalty phase of the capital trial where both mitigating and aggravating narratives “thicken” the narratives told in the guilt phase; in the penalty phase jurors make the decision to sentence the defendant to either life without the possibility of parole, or to death. While some research of juror decision-making shows that jurors favor the prosecution narrative and make up their minds to give the death sentence independent of the penalty phase narratives, other research on mitigation narratives shows that contextualizing the defendant, via mitigating narratives, can overturn the power of the prosecution narrative and lead to a life, rather than a death, sentence. This research seeks to avoid efforts to associate juror cognitive processes to narrative processes and instead seeks to examine the connection between jury sentencing decisions, for life or death, as a function of narrative closure which is, in turn, defined in terms of two narrative dimensions: structural complexity and moral transparency. Using this framework, the penalty phase narratives in two capital trials are compared along these dimensions; the findings suggest that moral transparency and structural complexity provide the foundations for narrative closure in the penalty phase, as both structural simplicity and moral obtuseness are characteristic of narratives that are not adopted by the jury. While the sample size is small, the narrative data is rich, and the study, overall, is intended not to suggest a causal relation between dimensions of narrative closure and jury sentencing, but rather aims to illustrate a method for assessing narratives in relation to jury sentencing in the penalty phase of capital trials. However, at the broadest level, the paper offers a framework for examining the way that narrative works to contain violence.
Keywords: violence, coherence, narrative, structural complexity, moral transparency, capital trials
Published online: 10 December 2010