Receptivity of Capital Jurors to Mitigating Factors of Mental Illness, Intellectual Disability, and Situational Impairments in Death Penalty Decisions: The Capital Trial Analyzed as a Mitigating 'Weight and Counterweight' to Premature Decisions and Pro-Death Bias
UMI Number: 3680787 Dissertation Publishing Proquest 2015
245 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2015
Date Written: February 22, 2015
This research presents aspects of juror receptivity to mitigating factors of mental, cognitive/intellectual and situational impairments in capital sentencing decisions. The study examined types of mental factors, as well as the gender of defendants, the aggravating nature of the crime and victim vulnerability. An exploratory cross-tabulation analysis evaluated the percentages and relationships between juror closed-ended CJP survey responses to mental sentencing factors and mental evidence presented at trial for 38 cases. While the sample size was too small in some cells for significance testing, the percentages demonstrated patterns. A detailed qualitative analysis of 12 cases with strong evidence of mental defenses compared juror open ended responses to trial evidence. The results were organized into five salient themes: personality disorders, intellectual disability, drug addiction, female defendants, and child victims.
The intensive qualitative analysis corroborated the findings of the exploratory cross-tabulation. Jurors were more receptive to intellectual disability and “organic” impairments than to temporal personality disorders. Jurors were not responsive to learning disabilities. Jurors found evidence of drug addiction to be more aggravating than mitigating. Where antisocial disorders and very aggravated crimes and victimizations were presented, more jurors found mental disturbance as a sentencing factor. The intensive analysis explained that jurors found defendant’s mental illness factors as aggravating, emphasizing the “brutality” of the crimes. Jurors were dubious of contested psychological testimony, focusing on family background and lay explanations. Arbitrariness was found in flawed judicial guidance and prosecutorial rhetoric, urging that intoxication, youth and abuse were not mitigating. Jurors with premature first-vote pro-death views were more distracted by arbitrary factors. They viewed defendant’s early admissions to determine capital guilt and used voir dire oath as a rationale to embarrass holdout jurors. Jurors failed to respond to mental evidence because of difficulty evaluating contested evidence and because of distractions owing to extra-legal factors unrelated to the evidence; premature automatic death-penalty decisions, parole speculation and racial considerations among jurors. This suggests that threshold errors can skew death decisions by distracting holdout jurors from urging consideration of mitigation and chilling dissent. These errors stifle moral considerations and serve as a “counterweight” to the proper weighing of evidence.
Keywords: Death Penalty, Jury Decision-making, Sentencing, Mitigation, Mental Defenses, Intellectual Disability
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