There Are Regional Differences in Death Row Inmates’ Last Words

Southerners are more likely to say sorry, but that doesn’t mean they actually feel remorse

Photo: Melody Joy Kramer

Just before a convicted criminal is executed, he (or sometimes she) is given the opportunity to give a final statement. Many decline this offer, but others take it as an opportunity to apologize, insist that they are innocent or even thank the prison guards for taking care of them throughout the years. 

As it turns out, there are regional and cultural differences between these statements. Psychologist Judy Eaton examined the records of the 679 people executed in the U.S. between 2000 and 2011, and she found that white inmates from Southern states tend to be more polite, apologizing to the victims' families more often than those from other backgrounds or parts of the U.S.

From the original 679 inmates, Eaton narrowed her analysis down to 299 Southerners and 60 non-Southerners. (The imbalance reflects the reality that more executions take place in the South.) She excluded the few women who were executed and ran a separate analysis for men who were not white because, she says, "the Southern culture of honor hypothesis relates only to White males from honor states."

In her analysis, Eaton calculated a "remorsefulness" variable on factors including whether the inmate apologized to the victim or the victim's family, asked for forgiveness, expressed regret and seemed earnest. For example, the statement of Kevin Varga, executed in Texas in 2010, fell into the earnest category: “I know I took someone very precious to you . . . I would pay it back a thousand times to bring back your loved ones. I would pay it gladly.” On the other hand, Douglas Roberts, who was executed in 2005, did not express earnestness or regret: "Okay I’ve been hanging around this popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all. When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead."

Eaton also controlled for factors such as the type of crime, whether the criminal knew the victim personally and whether the criminal's family was present at the execution. 

White Southerners—but not non-whites—were more likely to apologize for their crimes than inmates in other regions, she found. But they were no more likely to express remorse than any other death-row inmate. As she writes, "Researchers generally agree that true remorse includes more than simply saying “I’m sorry”; it also must include, at a minimum, an acceptance of responsibility for the offense and an offer to make amends." 

Apologizing (even if the person doesn't mean it) holds true to traditional Southern culture, which emphasizes that niceties should be respected at all costs—even at the expense of honesty. Eaton elaborates:   

One explanation for the higher likelihood of Southern apologies is that Southerners are more wedded to particular norms regarding politeness and kindness than those from the rest of the United States. The apparent lack of true remorse in their apologies supports the arguments of theorists who suggest that in the South politeness can be used to mask hostility and/or to deflect anger. It may also be that the Southern offender is more motivated than the non-Southern offender to protect, both publicly and privately, his reputation as an honorable person.

The act of murder creates dissonance with the Southern offender’s views of himself as a “southern country gentleman,” then a deathbed apology might serve to protect his private image (i.e., “I did a bad thing, but I apologized”) and, through impression management, his public image. It may also serve to protect the reputation of his family and/or his culture.

Regardless of whether or not the convict is sincere in his apology, however, Eaton points out that if the victim's family abides by the same culture of honor and politeness, then hearing the man who murdered their loved one say "I'm sorry" might bring some small relief, at least. 

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