The Backbone of Closing Speeches: The Impact of Prosecution Versus Defense Language on Judicial Attributions1


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    This research was supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Fi 294/10-1).

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jeannette Schmid, Psychologisches Institut, Universitaet Heidelberg, Hauptstr. 47-51, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany, e-mail:


Subtle attribution cues embedded in language were investigated in a simulated courtroom setting. Lawyers in training as well as lay attorneys gave closing speeches for the defense and for the prosecution. In a first study, distinct linguistic strategies were identified. Prosecutors attributed internal causality to defendants, whereas defense attorneys supported negative intentional attributions to the victim. In a second study, lay persons judged the closing speeches and decided on verdict and punishment. Severity of punishment depended on speaker's role (defense or prosecution), severity of crime, and 2 linguistic strategies, indicating intentionality of negative behavior and dispositionality of negative behavior. It is concluded that subtle language strategies do have a noticeable effect on the attribution of blame and guilt in a legal setting.