|Death Qualification Process Leads to Jurors More Likely to Convict|
|Written by Natasha Minsker|
|Tuesday, 01 March 2011 05:34|
By Natasha Minsker
Special to the Vanguard
Editor’s Note: Next week the death penalty trial opens for Marco Topete and they will begin a process known as death qualifying the jury. The ACLU of Northern California’s Death Penalty expert Natasha Minsker discusses what that means and the implications of it.
The right to be tried by a jury of your peers is a basic right in America. It is one of the innovations enshrined in our Constitution that sets our nation apart from most of the rest of the world. While most of us dread being called for jury service, we know that if it was us who stood accused of a crime, we would want to be judged by a cross-section of our community, not a government official in a black robe.
Yet when it comes to death penalty cases, the most gravely important in our justice system, we don’t use juries that actually represent a cross-section of the community. Instead, the law explicitly forbids a large group of community members from serving on the jury: anyone who does not support the death penalty. Today, in some California trials, that means nearly 40% of prospective jurors are excluded simply because of their qualms about the death penalty. The process offends many community members and the result of the process is a jury less inclined towards justice and more inclined towards conviction, no matter what the evidence shows.
Anyone who has been called for jury service in a death penalty case has experienced firsthand the process judges and lawyers call “death qualification,” the process of interviewing prospective jurors on their views about the death penalty to determine if they are “qualified” to serve. Many people have shared with me their own stories, particularly how humiliated they felt when the judge told them their opinions made them “unfit” to serve.
Because many people who oppose the death penalty do so because of deeply held religious beliefs, the result of the death qualification process is that many people of faith are prohibited from serving in death penalty cases. The Catholic Church’s position that the death penalty is inconsistent with the Church’s culture of life means that many Catholics are viewed with suspicion by prosecutors and judges in death penalty cases and are more likely to be excluded. In one California death penalty case, the prosecutor later testified that it was routine practice in his office to remove Jews from death penalty juries and a judge had even advised him to do so, because so many Jewish people are reluctant to impose the death penalty.
This flagrant bias in the selection of jurors pales in comparison to its impact on justice. Research shows that our prejudiced “qualification” process produces juries that are more likely to convict. Prospective jurors who make the cut to serve are more likely to believe prosecution witnesses and less likely to ask probing questions. As a result, many researchers believe innocent people are actually more likely to be wrongfully convicted in a death penalty case. Indeed, 138 innocent people have been freed from death rows in the US. Others are not so lucky. Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas for a fire, incorrectly labeled “arson,” that killed his children. Now experts agree the fire was in fact an accident.
Jurors who are pre-selected in this way are also more likely to sentence someone to death. That is after all the point of the current qualification system. But it’s not just that all the people with moral qualms about the death penalty have been removed from the jury. The prospective jurors left after death qualification are more likely to view evidence as “aggravating,” meaning it supports sentencing the person to death, and less likely to view the same evidence as “mitigating,” meaning it supports imposing a sentence of life without possibility of parole instead. Death qualified jurors view the facts and the evidence differently than do the jurors excluded from serving, differently in a way that favors the prosecution across the board.
When retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens recently concluded that the death penalty in America is unjust and should be replaced, he pointed to the death qualification process as one of the main reasons. Justice Stevens said that if we are going to have the death penalty, then the jury which decides the defendant’s fate should be drawn from a true cross-section of the community, not one tilted towards conviction. Better yet, Justice Stevens concluded, we should simply replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole and end death qualification altogether.
In California, if we replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole, we will save $1 billion in five years. Every part of the death penalty process is more expensive, from the trials that cost the county millions, to death row housing which is costing the state hundreds of millions. Our distorted qualification process for prospective jurors is one reason death penalty trials are so much more expensive. Hundreds more jurors must be called in death penalty cases, because so many will be disqualified, and the process often takes months of court time.
If prosecutors instead seek life without possibility of parole, they can ensure the safety of the community while ensuring swift and certain justice to the families of murder victims. They can also put an end to the unfair and costly process of tilting juries toward the death penalty and away from justice.
Natasha Minsker is the director of the ACLU of Northern California’s Death Penalty Policy program.
ACLU: "Today, in some California trials, that means nearly 40% of prospective jurors are excluded simply because of their qualms about the death penalty."
A death penalty opponent who is morally opposed to the death penalty in all case would say that the state does not have the right to put anyone to death. I believe that is the ACLU's position. It is my position.OK... let me get this correct... Mr Qaddafi (yes, I know the spelling varies), his mercenaries, minions, etc., when they decide/act to cut down civilians with machine guns, bombs, etc. should rest assured that no matter what, if they do not prevail, the worst that can happen to them is that they will be imprisoned for life, be fed, get medical treatment, all at no cost to themselves nor their families, but at the expense of society? By the logic of the concept of "the state" should not exact the death penalty, was every soldier in either the European or Pacific theater of WW2 morally wrong and/or culpable (to serve life without the possibility of parole) for allowing themselves to be sent into a situation by the "state" where they killed others for their or their state's crimes?
This statement is incorrect: "Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas for a fire, incorrectly labeled “arson,” that killed his children. Now experts agree the fire was in fact an accident." Willingham MAY have been wrongfully convicted...see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C...Willingham
"A death penalty opponent who is morally opposed to the death penalty in all case would say that the state does not have the right to put anyone to death. I believe that is the ACLU's position. It is my position."
"I understand your point, but in solving that problem, you create another larger problem, and that is you produce a jury that is far more likely to convict, regardless of the facts of the case and probably has contributed to the problems you acknowledge innocent people facing the death penalty."