Emotions and Criminal Law



Colin S. Diver Professor of Law

Project Summary

This past summer I worked with Penn Law Professor Paul Robinson to research the role emotions play in a criminal context.   The research is to be incorporated in Professor Robinson’s upcoming book about emotions and crime exploring legal, moral, social, and psychological issues.  I examined more than thirty real-world cases to better understand how emotions drive conduct and how an individual's conduct is subsequently perceived by judges and juries based on emotional valence.  Ultimately, the project aimed to better understand how emotions can and should influence sentencing.

I examined a number of emotions varying on a spectrum from positive to negative valence – love, hate, jealousy, fear, empathy, zeal, fervor, disgust, remorse, shame, and despair.  These emotions were further considered with regards to how the emotion manifests into behavior – disturbance, motivation, and rage.  For example, in one case, fear might motivate a crime, while in another, hate might enrage a person to the point where they commit a crime in the heat of the moment.

For each case, I analyzed, evaluated, and summarized a variety of online news sources, books from university libraries, and legal cases accessed from databases such as Lexis Nexis and Westlaw.  This information was used to craft compelling narratives of individual criminal cases in which a particular emotion was the primary driving force behind the crime.

I am happy to have had the opportunity to take part in Professor Robinson’s Emotions and Criminal Law project.  This research experience was enlightening for me as I not only gained exposure to the research process but also became more familiar with criminal law.  I now have a better grasp of how emotions drive individual behavior and impact decision making.