The Complexities of Conscience: Reconciling Death Penalty Law with Capital Jurors’ Concerns

84 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2020 Last revised: 8 Oct 2020

Date Written: August 14, 2020


Jurors exercise unique legal power when they are called upon to decide whether to sentence someone to death. The Supreme Court emphasizes the central role of the jury’s moral judgment in making this sentencing decision, noting that it is the jurors who are ‘best able to express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death.’” Many lower courts nevertheless narrow the range of admissible evidence at the mitigation phase of a capital trial, insisting on a standard of legal relevance that interferes with the jury’s ability to exercise the very moral judgment the Supreme Court has deemed essential.

Combining moral theory and original empirical evidence, this Article breaks new ground by linking these to a legal framework that gives full effect to the Supreme Court’s vision of the jury. Aided by a novel dataset of federal capital jury verdict forms, the Article focuses on three types of evidence frequently excluded in state and federal courts: the impact of the defendant’s execution on loved ones, co-participant sentences, and the government’s negligent facilitation of the murder.

The data show that jurors consistently find all three forms of evidence highly salient in their mitigation deliberations. Further, two of these—execution impact evidence and co-participant sentences—have a statistically significant correlation with the jurors’ sentencing decision. This Article’s empirical and moral account of juror behavior strongly supports expanding the admissibility of this evidence to reflect the Supreme Court’s evolution in defining the relevance of mitigating evidence as a moral, rather than legalistic, question, appropriately recognizing the jury’s normative role.

Keywords: death penalty, jury decision making, empirical, moral theory

Suggested Citation

Rountree, Meredith and Rose, Mary R., The Complexities of Conscience: Reconciling Death Penalty Law with Capital Jurors’ Concerns (August 14, 2020). Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 20-22, Available at SSRN: or

Meredith Rountree (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
3125030227 (Phone)

Mary R. Rose

University of Texas at Austin - Department of Sociology

United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics