Quantifying the ‘Worst of the Worst’: Victim, Offender and Crime Characteristics Contributing to ‘Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel’ Findings in Alabama

37 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2010

Date Written: July 15, 2010

Abstract

This study focuses on capital sentencing in Alabama. Specifically, it will attempt to identify characteristics of homicides that distinguish cases with “heinous, atrocious, and cruel” (HAC) findings from those homicides that do not have this finding. Critics of HAC assert that it lacks a clear statutory definition, and is, as a result, particularly vulnerable to being applied inconsistently. HAC is found in approximately forty percent of the cases in which an individual is sentenced to death in Alabama and is one of the most highly litigated aggravating circumstances across the country.

In order to examine how Alabama trial courts have been applying the HAC aggravating circumstance this study gathered data from all 414 individuals sentenced to death in Alabama from 1976 to 2008. Information was collected about procedural aspects of the cases, perpetrator and victim characteristics, and characteristics of the homicide. I examined the relationship between HAC findings and various crime characteristics using a logistic regression model. Even though the results of this analysis indicated that some case characteristics may be statistically relevant in predicting whether a particular case will result in a HAC finding, this study’s overall quantitative and qualitative examination was unable to identify a unifying set of characteristics that categorically distinguish the cases in which HAC is found from those where it is not. Because of these results, it appears that Alabama’s construction of HAC does not result in a consistent application of this aggravating circumstance.

Keywords: capital punishment, aggravating circumstances, sentencing, criminal justice, Alabama

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Adger, Jennifer Leigh, Quantifying the ‘Worst of the Worst’: Victim, Offender and Crime Characteristics Contributing to ‘Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel’ Findings in Alabama (July 15, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1640924 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1640924

Jennifer Leigh Adger (Contact Author)

Columbia University ( email )

New York, NY 10027
United States

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