The Complexities of Conscience: Reconciling Death Penalty L aw with Capital Jurors' Concerns

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2 Scopus citations


Jurors exercise unique legal power when they are asked 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.”1 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, this 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 relevant to 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1237-1328
Number of pages92
JournalBuffalo Law Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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