Life 'With' or 'Without'?: An Empirical Study of Homicide Sentencing

Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Forthcoming

Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 21-05

54 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2021

See all articles by Michael M. O'Hear

Michael M. O'Hear

Marquette University - Law School

Darren Wheelock

Marquette University Department of Social and Cultural Sciences

Date Written: April 26, 2021

Abstract

The number of Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) has grown rapidly over the past generation and now exceeds 50,000. Yet, little empirical research has been conducted on the determinants of LWOP sentences. The dearth of research on LWOP sentencing stands in sharp contrast to the many dozens of studies that have been conducted on the determinants of death sentences—studies that have consistently found that race, gender, and other questionable factors may influence sentencing outcomes. The present study is the first to employ a similar methodology to identify both case- and county-level variables that are correlated with the imposition of discretionary LWOP sentences.

More specifically, we have assessed the relationship between fifty different variables and LWOP decisions in 450 homicide cases in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2018. In our final model, we find seven variables that are correlated with sentencing outcomes. Of particular note, we find that judge and prosecutor personal characteristics are statistically significant correlates of LWOP decisions. We also find a significantly greater likelihood that LWOP sentences will be imposed in counties that are more Republican. We conclude with a proposal for a new LWOP sentencing process that may help to ensure that this very severe sentence is reserved for the most serious crimes committed by the most dangerous defendants.

Keywords: sentencing, life without the possibility of parole, homicide, criminal law, empirical legal research, correlation

Suggested Citation

O'Hear, Michael M. and Wheelock, Darren, Life 'With' or 'Without'?: An Empirical Study of Homicide Sentencing (April 26, 2021). Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Forthcoming, Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 21-05, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3834584

Michael M. O'Hear (Contact Author)

Marquette University - Law School ( email )

Sensenbrenner Hall
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201
United States
414-288-3587 (Phone)
414-288-5914 (Fax)

Darren Wheelock

Marquette University Department of Social and Cultural Sciences ( email )

United States

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