Ever wonder why some juries mete out judgment that’s extremely severe, why others don’t? A new study suggests that in cases that were believed to be intentional, the details of the crime weighed heavily on the results. In short, a prosecutor who is able to tell a story with brutal, gruesome details is more likely to get a more severe punishment than one who just tells the details in a sort of matter-of-fact manner.

Punishment

Basics on the study

Michael Treadway of Harvard Medical School led the study, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. A press release states that researchers scanned the brains of 30 volunteers while they read to them a number of scenarios. The scenarios included someone named John who caused some sort of harm to another person named Mary or Steve. They switched up a couple of the details of the story in some cases.

In some versions of the story, what John did to them was described in an especially horrible way. In others, researchers told the story in a sort of matter-of-fact way. They also made it clear in some of the versions that John meant to hurt them and was totally at fault, while in other versions, they made it sound like more of an accident. Then researchers asked the volunteers what kind of punishment they would give to John for what he did.

Graphic details sometimes result in harsher punishment

They found that the more gruesome the details of the story, the more John was punished. In other words, in cases in which two people did the same thing. The same judge could sentence the first one to more prison time than the second one because of the way the crime was described. Photos and videos of the crime often weighed in prosecutors’ favor here as well.

The other key finding from the study was whether or not it seemed like the defendant purposely meant to harm the victim. More punishment was typically handed out when the volunteers thought John meant to harm the victim. When they thought it was an accident, gruesome details had no effect on the punishment that was meted out.