When the families of the victims of the crime speak at the death penalty trials, their anguish may make the sentence less fair.
The Trump administration has spent the last few months authorizing executions. Ten death row inmates have been killed so far this year, ending a 17-year federal moratorium on the death penalty. States, on the other hand, carry out fewer executions this year – seven so far – than in any year since 1983, when five people were executed. This is partly due to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic poses serious risks to the health of personnel responsible for killing prisoners. Among the state executions postponed this year was that of Pervis Payne, who was granted a temporary postponement by the Tennessee governor until April in November. 9, 2021. Payne was sentenced to death in 1988 for the stabbed death of Charisse Christopher, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter. He was also convicted of assault with intent to commit a first-degree murder of Christopher’s 3-year-old son, who survived. Payne’s case is a significant case in the history of the death penalty in America, because in 1991, the United States Supreme Court used it to uphold the right of families of crime victims to participate in the death penalty phase. Their personal testimony gives surviving family members a chance to tell judges and juries about the impact of crime on their lives. Victim impact statements are now a common part of the capital condemnation process in both federal and state capital lawsuits. The impact statements of the victims have transformed the process of the death penalty, according to my research on the death penalty – including because of the way they were treated by the Supreme Court. Recognition of victims’ rights Throughout most of American history, victims have played a small role in and had little influence over the criminal justice system. In the 1960s and 1970s, an organized victim rights movement began to emerge in response to the perceived inclination of the Supreme Court’s pro-defendant led by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. Victims of crime have pressured for the right to be heard at critical moments in the prosecution of criminals, especially when sentencing decisions have been made. This action has been particularly strong in murder cases. In the 1970s and 1980s, several states, including Tennessee, passed legislation giving families of crime victims the right to participate in capital cases. Defendants in some death cases challenged the use of the victim’s impact statements, claiming that the information they contained was not relevant to the conviction. determinations and risked igniting the passions of the jury. In 1987, the United States Supreme Court took up one of these challenges. In Booth v. Maryland, it considered whether the testimony of the victim’s impact violated the prohibition of the Eighth Amendment on “cruel and unusual punishment”. The court, by a decision 5-4, considered that yes. In his majority opinion, Judge Lewis Powell wrote that because the victim’s impact statements give the jury emotionally compelling testimony, there is a substantial risk of prejudice. They focus on factors that the defendants were not “aware of” and “divert the jury’s concern from the defendant’s background and records and the circumstances of the crime.” Thus, such a testimony threatens to undermine “the reasoned decisions we seek in capital cases.” Four years later, after the withdrawal of two judges who voted against the victim’s impact statements, the Supreme Court used Pervis Payne’s case to reconsider them. This time he found them constitutional in capital cases. In an opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court upheld Judge Powell’s view that the victim’s impact statements “do not generally reflect the” guilt of the defendant. ” “Evidence of the victim’s impact,” argued Rehnquist, “is simply another form or method of informing the sentencing authority of the specific harm caused by the offense in question. … ”It ensures that the victim is not a“ faceless stranger ”, he wrote, and remedies the“ injustice ”of the criminal punishment, which focuses exclusively on the life and circumstances of the offender. Pain, anger and racial prejudice Evidence of the victim’s impact has had a significant impact on the death penalty proceedings since then. “[I]In the past, the death sentence has put the defendant on trial, ”wrote law professor Marcus Dubber in a Buffalo Law Review article published after the Supreme Court ruling. Today, Dubber said, the defendant “meets an even more formidable adversary” during the conviction: the grieving family of the victims. Research suggests that in many cases, the victim’s testimony provokes anger among jurors, compromising the rationality of their deliberations. Jurors use the pain expressed in the victim’s impact statements as “proxy for the level of guilt of the defendant and, implicitly, the perceived gravity of the crime,” according to professors Janice Nadler and Mary Rose. But not all of the victim’s testimonies are treated equally. Research shows that jurors tend to take the suffering of the families of some victims more seriously than others, depending on their social status. As law professor Susan Bandes remarks, “A crime victim who met her abuser in a motorcycle bar, for example, is less appreciated than a crime victim who attacks while withdrawing money from an ATM.” . Prosecutors tend to encourage the families of middle-class victims to make statements while discouraging families from other backgrounds to do so. The researchers found that the evidence on the impact of the victims also contributes to the already substantial racial differences in the sentencing of capital, with juries giving more weight to the suffering of the families of victims of white crime. Victims’ advocates say the possibility of talking about their loss promotes healing and closure, but giving an impact statement to the victim often does not provide a psychological benefit, according to Marilyn Armor, who leads the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue as opposed to churches. , cemeteries or even therapists’ offices – traditional places for mourning and expressing indignation in the event of a cruel loss – courtrooms may not be “suitable to help the healing process,” says Bandes. When victims speak in capital cases, public control invades their private suffering. Neither judges nor jurors are trained to deal with this deeply emotional process, and “no one is making sure that the defendants will respond properly” or that the families of the victims will receive the justice they seek. Not all families of crime victims want the killer killed. In the case of Daniel Lee Lewis, the first person executed by the Trump administration, the victims’ family members spoke out against his sentence and execution. They had a voice in court, but they did not get the justice they wanted. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Austin Sarat, Amherst College. Read more: * Trump’s plan to revive the gallows, the electric chair, the gas chamber and the firing squad recalls a troubled history * People continue to vote in support of the death penalty. So how can we finish it? Austin Sarat does not work, consult, hold shares or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article and did not disclose any relevant affiliation beyond their academic appointment.