Friday, August 14, 2009

Death Qualification

NASHVILLE (WATE) -- Death penalty questions in Nashville Thursday brought out tears and hedging from the jury pool for the first trial of suspects accused of killing Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.

Attorneys for both sides continue questioning potential jurors in Davidson County for the trial of Letalvis Cobbins.

Several potential jurors were dismissed Thursday morning because they're strongly opposed to the death penalty. One woman quoted the Bible during questioning, saying "it's not our place, it's God's place."


The process described in this article is termed "death qualification." During jury selection, potential members are questioned about their death penalty beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court held that jurors who are opposed to the death penalty can be excluded (Witherspoon v. Illinois). No only did this decision violate the spirit and intention of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of a trial by a jury of one's peers, which has been interpreted to mean a cross-section of the community, but it left supporters of the death penalty free to decide guilt and impose the sentence.

27 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court altered the standard in Wainwright v. Witt. Thus prospective jurors who would always vote for a death sentence or who would never vote for a death sentence are excluded from in capital cases. But what about jurors who hold slightly less rigid views on capital punishment?

Enter social science research. While the goal of the jury selection process is to produce an impartial jury, research suggests that the process of death qualification produces a "stacked deck" against the defendant. As this article shows, the process is tilted toward removing death penalty opponents from the jury, which leaves death penalty supporters to render the decision. Research also shows that those who support capital punishment are more likely to convict, are less concerned with due process, are more likely to believe the prosecution than the defense, and are more likely to impose a death sentence than people who oppose capital punishment.

This body of research illustrates one more reason why the death penalty process developed by the courts and legislatures is unworkable.

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