Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Myth of Impartial Jurors

The death penalty trial of a West Philadelphia man - accused of killing two people and wounding a third in the bloody 2006 takeover of a crack cocaine ring in the Northeast - collapsed in mistrial this morning after the judge learned jurors began deliberating before the trial ended.

Read more... 

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the process of a bifurcated trial in capital cases. There was no evidence that this process was an improvement, but it was adopted nonetheless.  Recent research now shows how naive the Court was in accepting the bifurcated process. As this incident shows, jurors don't wait until the appropriate time to deliberate or to make up their minds about guilt or innocence. The first phase, known as the guilt phase, is ostensibly reserved for listening to the evidence and then deliberating about guilt. But jurors frequently violate the tenets of  the guilt phase.

Another factor that works against the accused is that jurors frequently want the accused to accept responsibility for their actions if they are going to be merciful. The second phase, known as the punishment phase, provides the defense and the prosecution the opportunity to present evidence designed to influence the jury's decision about the punishment. Here is the problem - the defendant may have denied responsibility for the crime in the guilt phase, but is now asking for mercy in the penalty phase - a tall obstacle to overcome.

The body of research shows that the impartiality of jurors is a myth. Yet judges and legislators are either in a state of denial on this matter or are pretending to not know the reality when in fact they are aware and are counting on perpetuating the myth. Either way, the capital punishment process is just another great flaw in this failed policy.

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