The role of death qualification in venirepersons' evaluations of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in capital trials
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Margaret Bull Kovera
Date of Defense
Death qualification is a part of voir dire that is unique to capital trials. Unlike all other litigation, capital jurors must affirm their willingness to impose both legal standards (either life in prison or the death penalty). Jurors who assert they are able to do so are deemed "death-qualified" and are eligible for capital jury service; jurors who assert that they are unable to do so are deemed "excludable" or "scrupled" and are barred from hearing a death penalty case. During the penalty phase in capital trials, death-qualified jurors weigh the aggravators (i.e., arguments for death) against the mitigators (i.e., arguments for life) in order to determine the sentence. If the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, then the jury is to recommend death; if the mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances, then the jury is to recommend life. The jury is free to weigh each aggravating and mitigating circumstance in any matter they see fit. Previous research has found that death qualification impacts jurors' receptiveness to aggravating and mitigating circumstances (e.g., Luginbuhl Middendorf, 1988). However, these studies utilized the now-defunct Witherspoon rule and did not include a case scenario for participants to reference. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether death qualification affects jurors' endorsements of aggravating and mitigating circumstances when Witt, rather than Witherspoon, is the legal standard for death qualification. Four hundred and fifty venirepersons from the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami, Florida completed a booklet of stimulus materials that contained the following: two death qualification questions; a case scenario that included a summary of the guilt and penalty phases of a capital case; a 26-item measure that required participants to endorse aggravators, nonstatutory mitigators, and statutory mitigators on a 6-point Likert scale; and standard demographic questions. Results indicated that death-qualified venirepersons, when compared to excludables, were more likely to endorse aggravating circumstances. Excludable participants, when compared to death-qualified venirepersons, were more likely to endorse nonstatutory mitigators. There was no significant difference between death-qualified and excludable venirepersons with respect to their endorsement of 6 out of 7 statutory mitigators. It would appear that the Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision to declare the death penalty unconstitutional is frustrated by the Lockhart v. McCree (1986) affirmation of death qualification.
Butler, Brooke M., "The role of death qualification in venirepersons' evaluations of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in capital trials" (2000). FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2001.
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