A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. National Journal

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In 2007, while Jerry Martin was serving time for attempted murder, he tried to escape. Laboring on a work assignment outside the correctional institution, he stole a truck and rammed it into a mounted police officer. The officer was killed, and Martin was sentenced to die.

Before the state of Texas injected him with lethal drugs on Dec. 3 of last year, Martin said this:

I would like to tell the Canfield family I'm sorry; sorry for your loss. I wish I could take it back, but I can't. I hope this gives you closure. I did not murder your loved one, it was an accident. I didn't mean for it to happen. I take full responsibility.

His final words were an apology.

***

It may be a strange question for a psychologist to ask — seeing how relatively few people end up on death row — but what is the right thing to say in such a circumstance?

It turns out culture may play a role.

"When most of the factors that might influence an apology for a criminal transgression (e.g., the threat of harsher punishment or a hope for leniency, the threat of retaliation) are stripped away, is southern politeness still apparent in offenders from the U.S. South?" Judy Eaton, a psychologist at Laurier Branford University in Canada, asks in a paper published recently in the journal Sage Open.

To see if culture informs last words, Eaton read every final death-row statement available between 2000 to 2011, and sorted each by region of the United States — into Southern and non-Southern categories to differentiate between the cultural differences. Then, she searched for apologetic content in every statement. The subject pool was small — 299 Southerners and 60 non-Southerners. But then, only 679 people were executed in the United States during that time. This is as big of a test as Eaton could run.

Southern offenders were two times more likely to apologize for their crimes in their final words, Eaton found. But there's a caveat. "This does not necessarily mean that southerners were more remorseful, however," her paper concludes. "The analysis revealed that they were not more likely than non-southerners to express remorse, defined as the extent to which they accepted responsibility, asked for forgiveness, expressed regret, and appeared to be earnest."

So the Southerners were more likely to say the words, but not necessarily more likely to mean them.

There are many way researchers find that Southern culture influences everyday interactions. It revolves around what psychologists call a "culture of honor," in which people want to be seen as being honorable (polite, charitable, apologetic), but also will defend that honor when  confronted by a personal attack.

It's a small example of how culture imprints on us. It's what we fall back on, when there's nothing else left.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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