As the trial of Jodi Arias continues to command media attention and the discussion of the case causes emotions to heat up, the issue of the death penalty is once again coming to the front and center of the public forum. Arias, charged with the killing of former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, was just found guilty of first-degree murder, a conviction which, in Arizona, makes her eligible for the death sentence. But what criteria go into such a verdict—and what role does the jury play?
The exact circumstances that dictate whether or not a suspect can be sentenced to death depend on state law, but ultimately the crime or crimes in question must be deemed to be of a particularly heinous nature. This is the guilt phase of the trail, which simply asserts whether capital punishment is on the table. This is followed by the sentencing phase, in which the jury must decide whether the defendant has committed the crime he or she is accused of.
During the screening for the jury, the prosecution may dismiss potential jurors if they will, under no circumstances, issue a verdict of death. Interestingly, while demographic factors, such as race, gender and religious beliefs, may be closely linked with attitudes toward capital punishment, these factors by themselves cannot be the basis for dismissal.
Whether the death penalty is by definition a cruel and unusual punishment is still a topic of passionate debate. What is less ambiguous is that many jurors involved in death penalty trials don’t fully understand the protocols of capital rulings; they may not know that life in prison is still an option. In effect, their verdicts may be swayed by a simple lack of information. Here are some pivotal areas of misunderstanding, as demonstrated by the National Science Foundation:
- Many jurors aren’t certain of the differences between the guilt and sentencing phases. In fact, about half of all jurors in capital cases have made a final decision prior to the sentencing phase.
- Nearly 50% of all jurors believe that if the defendant was made subject to execution in the guilt phase, capital punishment is then the only outcome of a verdict of guilty. Furthermore, jurors often don’t know that, in lieu of death, a defendant can be given a life sentence with no possibility of parole if their injuriousness has been established.
- While at least one piece of condemning evidence must be established beyond a reasonable doubt (aggravating evidence), factors that make the defendant’s guilt unclear (mitigating evidence) need not be proven to the same degree. Many jurors are simply are not aware of this difference in the nature of evidence.
In cases that involve non-citizens who have been convicted of major crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, etc., immigration law in the U.S. is quite severe. In cases like these, a Judge or Immigration officer may not provide mercy on the basis of reasonable discretion; however, the Governor of New York has created a panel to grant Pardons to those that show that they are able to rehabilitate themselves in order to avoid deportation by the Immigration Service.
As another Arizona case has just demonstrated, capital verdicts can sometimes be overturned by a judge. In this case, a woman named Debra Milke had been convicted for counts of murder, conspiracy, child abuse and kidnapping. She had been on death row for over twenty years; however, an Arizona appeals judge threw the capital verdict out when it became clear that the aggravating evidence was suspect: in this instance, the issue was that the character of the prosecution’s key witness was dubious, a fact unknown to the jury.
As this case demonstrates, if crucial evidence is found to come under suspicion—or if the initial grounds for choosing capital sentencing are shown to be unfounded—an appeals level judge can reverse a jury’s decision.
Again, the grounds for justifying the death penalty vary, as do the particulars as to if and when it can be overruled. In any case, if you happen to live in a state in which capital punishment is permissible, make sure to familiarize yourself with the parameters of the death sentence in the interests of the defendant—and of justice.