Resource scarcity increases support for death penalty

Interdisciplinary ASU team identifies environmental influence on attitude toward controversial punishment


August 24, 2018

Death as a punishment is an ancient concept. It is also controversial. Worldwide, over 140 countries have outlawed the death penalty, yet in over 50 it remains the law of the land.

Most research on death penalty attitudes searches for explanations in cultural influences or individual political or religious beliefs. An interdisciplinary research team of social psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and legal scholars from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology have identified a different influence on how people think about punishment: the availability of resources. In a study currently in press at Evolution and Human Behavior, the team tested how resource scarcity or abundance was related to endorsement of the death penalty across the globe and among individuals. The paper was made available online last week. Resource Scarcity Increases Support for Death Penalty The availability of resources can have an affect on attitudes about the death penalty, a news study reveals. Illustration by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

The relationship between capital and punishment

Instead of focusing on how political views or religion affect the perception of the death penalty, the ASU researchers tested whether available resources influenced punishment for serious offenses. This idea — that resource scarcity could determine punishment — comes from approaches to understanding how humans evolved to deal effectively with different environments.

“To understand why people feel the way they do about the death penalty, we looked beyond individual differences to features of the environment that might affect people’s punishment attitudes, sometimes in ways outside of their conscious awareness,” said Keelah Williams, who earned her doctorate in psychology and law degree from ASU in 2017 and is now an assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York. Williams is the lead author on the study.

In four studies, using both archival and experimental methods, the researchers examined how the availability of resources might shape death penalty beliefs.

The first study assessed the relationship between resource scarcity and the presence of capital punishment in nations around the world. The researchers discovered that countries with greater resource scarcity were more likely to have a death penalty.

“Some might attribute the differences in countries' death penalty laws to numerous factors including cultural differences,” said Ashley Votruba, who also earned her doctorate in psychology and law degree from ASU in 2017 and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To limit cultural differences at the country level as a possible explanatory factor, the researchers next focused on the United States, where the status of the death penalty is determined independently by each state and is currently legal in 31 states. Replicating the findings from the global study, U.S. states with lower per capita income were more likely to have the death penalty as a punishment option.

A causal link between environmental influences and the death penalty

Based on the results from the first two studies — that countries and individual states with fewer resources are more likely to have the death penalty — the researchers decided to test for a causal link between resource scarcity and endorsement of the death penalty.

In two additional experiments, the researchers had participants view pictures and read a short story about the economy. The story and pictures either detailed economic hardships like high unemployment and frequent home foreclosures or economic prosperity like high job growth and wages, rising stock prices and many new home purchases. After viewing the photographs and reading the story, the participants answered questions about their attitudes toward the death penalty, along with their political views and socioeconomic status.

In the first experiment, people randomly assigned to read about economic hardship tended to view the death penalty more favorably than those who read about economic prosperity, and this finding was independent of political ideology and socioeconomic status.

Because the finding was statistically small, in the next experiment the researchers applied a “death qualification” criterion, also known as the Witherspoon rule, to the participants. The participants were questioned in the same way jurors serving on capital cases are screened. If jurors are staunchly opposed to, or staunchly in favor of, the death penalty, they are disqualified from serving on a capital case because jurors have to be willing to make the decision about the death penalty based on the evidence presented. The researchers reasoned that participants already committed to their death penalty beliefs would be less likely to be influenced by fleeting changes in their perceptions of resource availability.

In addition, participants were queried about the riskiness of keeping convicted murderers alive, by responding to statements such as “Keeping convicted murderers alive is too great a risk for society to take” or “The death penalty is the only way to ensure a convicted murderer will not murder again.” These statements probed a potential mechanism for how resource scarcity affects the death penalty: resource scarcity leads people to see offenders as posing greater risks to society. Like the previous experiment, participants then answered questions about their views on the death penalty.

Participants who were eligible to participate as jurors on death penalty cases were especially likely to support the death penalty if they had first read about economic hardship rather than economic prosperity. The perceived costs of allowing convicted murderers to live predicted this effect: Perceived scarcity led people to view convicted murderers as greater risks to society, which then predicted their greater endorsement of the death penalty.

Overall, the study findings suggest that the way a group deals with members who threaten the safety of others is influenced by whether people feel they are facing a world that is economically secure or not, said Michael Saks, Regents’ Professor of law and psychology at ASU. Saks, who is senior author on the study, added that the findings also suggest how society assigns punishment is fundamentally driven by the need for material well-being, and philosophical principles are developed afterwards.

“One would think that fluctuating perceptions of resource availability wouldn’t shape beliefs about something as morally profound and consequential as the death penalty,” offered Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. “These findings, along with others, help support the view that aspects of contemporary psychology rest on a deep, evolved rationality. They also have more immediate, practical implications: The ability of scientific psychology to better understand the peripheral factors that shape beliefs about the death penalty may be, for some, the difference between life and death.”

The study was completed at ASU while Williams and Votruba earned their doctorates in psychology and degrees in law. 

Science writer, Psychology Department

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Passionate, innovative new faculty members underscore ASU Law’s commitment to excellence


August 24, 2018

The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is pleased to welcome four new faculty members for the 2018–19 school year:

• Gregg Leslie, executive director of ASU Law’s First Amendment Clinic and professor of practice of media law
• Trevor Reed, associate professor of law
• Justin Weinstein-Tull, associate professor of law
• Ilan Wurman, fellow and lecturer-in-law Download Full Image

“These four individuals not only bring outstanding credentials and expertise, but also innovative thinking, passion for the law and enthusiasm for teaching,” ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester said. “Those are the hallmark traits of our outstanding ASU Law faculty.”

Dynamic additions to the staff are part of the continual evolution for ASU Law, which is one of the highest-rated public law schools in the country. Ranked 19th in the nation for percentage of graduates who land high-quality law jobs, at 89 percent, ASU Law has ranked in the top 20 in that category for the past five years. During that same five-year stretch, it has also held the highest bar-passage rate in the state.

“We will never be satisfied, and we will never get complacent,” Sylvester said. “Continuing to add talented faculty is part of our ongoing commitment to offering an elite legal education.”

The newest members of the staff bring a diverse collection of experience, culture and expertise to ASU Law. They are excited by everything that Phoenix, ASU and their new desert home has to offer. And they are fierce defenders of civil rights, democracy, free speech and the rule of law.

Gregg Leslie, distinguished professor of media free speech

Gregg Leslie

Leslie is the inaugural executive director of ASU Law’s First Amendment Legal Clinic, and he will also be serving as the school’s professor of practice of media law.

The clinic, opening this fall, will focus on First Amendment protections and is funded by a nearly $1 million gift from the Stanton Foundation, a private organization established by longtime CBS president Frank Stanton.

“It is an honor to be selected to launch this exciting clinic,” Leslie said. “I'm thrilled to be joining such an energetic and innovative legal community, and am really looking forward to working with the students to promote and defend First Amendment rights. I think this clinic will be a great addition to the school and will benefit both the community and the students who want to immerse themselves in these topics.”

Leslie said his interest in the First Amendment predates his enrollment in law school. His passion grew when, first as a student journalist and then as a professional journalist, he ran into challenges with government employees using the law to try to hinder reporting. After graduating from law school, he said, he jumped at the chance to work for a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting journalists.

He has been with the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press since 1994, serving as director since 2000. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit association is dedicated to assisting journalists. It was founded in 1970 by a group of reporters and lawyers when the nation’s media faced an unprecedented wave of government subpoenas from the Nixon administration, forcing journalists to reveal confidential sources.

A graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, Leslie has worked for the campaign and transition team of former President Bill Clinton; has served as chairman of the D.C. Bar's Media Law Committee; was a member of the governing committee of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association; and has been part of the ABA's Fair Trial and Free Press Task Force.

Leslie says a free society is largely dependent on a free press.

“The very notion of a democratic society, where people have a role in how their own governance, depends on having both access to information about the government and the right to distribute it freely without fear of retaliation or prosecution,” he said. “And it's not important that the process be nice and neat. Open, robust political debate will involve angry accusations and sometimes bad information, and it all should be subject to public scrutiny. A free press is essential to that process.”

(Read more about the First Amendment Clinic and Professor Leslie)

Trevor Reed, associate professor of law

Trevor Reed

Reed joins ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program as an associate professor of law, and he will be teaching ILP courses, as well as classes on copyrights and trademarks.

He earned dual graduate degrees from Columbia University’s law school and graduate school of arts and sciences, where he also gained national prominence as director of the Hopi Music Repatriation Project.

Reed grew up in Seattle but also spent significant time with relatives in the Hopi village of Hotevilla, Arizona. He then attended Brigham Young University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition in 2005.

After graduating, Reed joined the Utah Symphony and Opera in Salt Lake City as artistic and operations coordinator, and that’s where his musical interests began to intersect with the legal world.

“I was in charge of contracts with guest artists,” he said. “We did a lot of work with musicians’ unions, but by and large, a majority of my time was spent planning and then executing concert performances. You wouldn’t think it would be so rigorous, but actually Utah’s Symphony is one of 17 full-time orchestras in the country, so it was there that I really learned a lot about law and the arts. I wasn’t a lawyer, but I did a ton of transactional work, and it was a lot of fun.”

In 2007, he moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia, beginning a decade-plus of music-inspired study that would result in three master’s degrees, a PhD and a Juris Doctor.

“When I got there, it opened up so many new issues for me,” Reed said. “It just so happens that Columbia owns this massive archive of Native American musical recordings that I don’t know if anybody had really ever heard about. When I learned about that, it sparked an interest in wanting to return music and other types of archival collections, artifacts and other types of intellectual property back to Native American tribes.”

Reed said he has always been impressed with the scholarship that has come out of ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program, pointing specifically to landmark work in the areas of constitutional law, tribal sovereignty, economic development and voting rights.

“The faculty have done so much to advance tribal and federal Indian law. The students are a diverse group, and yet very united. I’m extremely excited to be working with both the students and the faculty of the program and feel privileged to play a small role researching and teaching with them,” he said.

(Read more about Professor Reed)

Justin Weinstein-Tull, associate professor of law

Justin Weinstein-Tull

Weinstein-Tull joins ASU Law as an associate professor of law who will be teaching constitutional law and the 14th Amendment, as well as a seminar on federalism.

A native of the Bay Area, he attended Stanford as an undergraduate, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and a master’s in political theory.

While working in Washington, D.C., afterward, for an anti-hunger advocacy organization, he decided to further his education.

“I realized I would need a law degree to get the tools to do equality work going forward,” he said. “And when I went to the Harvard Kennedy School for a master’s in public policy, it was clear that I needed something a little bit more.”

That little bit more wound up being a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School, which he earned in 2008. Afterward, he said he had a great experience clerking for Judge Sidney Thomas on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Billings, Mont. Although Weinstein-Tull had always hoped to work in academia, his career went in a different direction after the clerkship.

“Obama had just taken office, and I had the chance to work in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, and it was something I couldn’t pass up,” he said. “I spent three years there and then two years at a law firm in San Francisco. It was more of a detour than I intended.”

He then made the transition back to the academic world, with a fellowship at Stanford Law School, before joining the ASU Law faculty.

His legal focus is on government institutions and the protection of civil rights.

“I care about institutions, largely at the state and local level, and the ways in which they can fortify or weaken civil rights,” he said. “I enjoy looking at interactions between all levels of government: federal, state and local. It’s a diverse set of interactions and endlessly generative when it comes to interesting and troubling issues to look into.”

And he looks forward to sharing his passion for politics and social justice with students and fellow faculty members at ASU Law.

“I litigated in election law for three years at the DOJ, and I care a lot about election law,” he said. “So one thing I hope to bring is a set of real-world experiences doing some impact litigation. I care about politics and social justice, and I hope to be part of that set of conversations going on in the law school.”

He says he loves to teach and mentor students, especially those who are committed to public-interest work. And there’s one other thing he’d like people to know about him.

“I have the best dog ever,” he said. “He’s a reddish golden retriever, and his name is Rusty.”

Ilan Wurman, fellow and lecturer in law

Ilan Wurman

Wurman joins ASU Law as a fellow and lecturer-in-law who will be teaching administrative law and the 14th Amendment.

Born and raised in California, he studied government and physics at Claremont McKenna College before earning a law degree at Stanford.

“People always say, ‘Oh, you must be so smart, you have a physics degree,’” he said. “And I say, ‘You don’t get it, there’s a reason I went to law school — I was bad at physics!’“

Despite his lofty academic credentials, Wurman said he suffered a bit from black-sheep syndrome.

“My family is a bunch of scientists, and I always felt compelled to pursue that,” he said. “I had always been decent at math and science in high school, but it just wasn’t a natural fit. I was much better, I would say, at political philosophy and law.”

After graduating from Stanford Law School in 2013, he clerked for a year on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, for Judge Jerry E. Smith, then spent three and a half years working for a law firm in Washington, D.C.

Even when he was still trying to make it as a physicist, he was always fascinated by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. And that carried over into law school, where he wanted to go beyond the “what” and learn more about the “why.”

“Most students in constitutional law classes only get a superficial introduction to the Constitution, in terms of how it should be interpreted and why it should be binding on us,” he said.

He wanted to learn more, especially about the two principal schools of thought on constitutional interpretation.

“Should we interpret it through originalism — the idea that we should interpret the Constitution with its original meaning, you know, the meaning it would have had to the public that ratified it and to the framers that wrote the Constitution — or should we interpret it as a living, breathing document subject to changing interpretations over time?”

After graduating and completing his clerkship, he decided to write the book he wished he had had as a law student. He says the book, “A Debt Against the Living: An Introduction to Originalism,” which was published last year, is a short and accessible introduction to constitutional interpretation and what the Founders were trying to accomplish with the Constitution.

“And it’s particularly timely given the debates over the direction of the Supreme Court that are currently going on,” he added.

Wurman is high-energy, a musician who plays both the piano and flute, and enjoys hiking and outdoor activities with his significant other. And he is, of course, passionate about law.

“The most important thing that I want to bring is my enthusiasm and excitement for the law,” he said. “As I tell students who are inquiring about whether they should go to law school, ‘The law, yes, is hard. Law school is hard. But once you get through it, the law is not only important and it matters to real people — to clients and people with real needs — but it’s also fun and it’s interesting.’ And if I can convey that excitement and enthusiasm for the law to my students, in particular, then I feel like I will have acquitted myself decently well, so to speak.”

Executive Director, Marketing and Communications, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

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