Race, Culpability, and Defendant Plea-Bargaining Decisions: An Experimental Simulation


Guilty pleas account for the vast majority of criminal convictions, yet experimental research on this topic is surprisingly uncommon; furthermore, race is seldom examined in the existing body of experimental studies. The current study utilized a 2 (Participant Race: White, non-White) X 2 (Defendant Culpability: Guilty, Innocent) between-subjects factorial design to investigate mock-defendant plea decisions using a vignette paradigm; culpability was randomly assigned. A significant main effect for culpability was found, such that guilty participants were more likely to accept the plea; however, 32.6% of innocent participants indicated that they would plead guilty to the crime in order to receive a guaranteed lesser sentence. The impact of culpability on plea decision making was partially mediated by individual beliefs about the case (e.g., strength of the case against them, likelihood of conviction at trial), which is especially interesting because this information was held constant across all conditions. There was no main effect for participant race in plea decisions (and no significant race by culpability interaction), although some racial differences in attitudes toward the criminal justice system were found. Possible explanations for these findings and implications for future research are explored.



Document Type





legal attitudes, Plea bargaining, race

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice