To serve on a jury in which the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty, the law requires you to consider imposing both a life sentence and the death penalty. If you are unwilling to consider voting for capital punishment, you are disqualified from service. The process of excluding jurors who cannot give the death penalty or would only give the death penalty is called “death-qualification.”
Jury service is a fundamental right of citizens and empowers us to keep a check on state power. In capital cases, we are asked not just to be finders of fact, but to make a moral determination about whether a person should live or die. The voice of all those who do not think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment are removed, even though the state executes citizens “in the name of [all] the people”. Courts point to death verdicts as evidence of support for the death penalty – yet those verdicts are rendered by juries from whom everyone who disagrees with capital punishment has been excluded.
For many Americans, their beliefs about the death penalty are rooted in their religious convictions or their concerns about flaws in the system. Death-qualification is an issue of civic importance for several reasons, and should be understood by all those interested in performing jury duty.
Prone to Conviction
One significant problem with death-qualification is that the process empanels a jury that is more likely to find the defendant guilty than a non-death-qualified jury. Studies uniformly show this to be the case. The “conviction-prone” nature of death-qualified juries calls into question their impartiality.
Prone to Mistakes
Research indicates that death-qualification skews the demographic makeup of capital juries, disproportionately excluding women and racial minorities. Research cited by the Equal Justice Initiative in its report, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy, shows that non-diverse juries tend to:
- spend less time deliberating
- consider fewer perspectives
- be less likely to correct inaccuracies
- be more likely to discuss controversial race-related topics in deliberations
- make more factual errors
Undermines Check on Government Power
Beyond its worrisome demographic impact and its artificial construction of a jury that is more likely to find a person guilty of a crime, death-qualification strips citizens who have legitimate concerns about governmental power and state-sponsored executions of their right to participate in our nation’s revered jury system. In our democratic society, death-qualification undermines the historical role of the jury as a guardian against the abuse of State power.
“The jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power—a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges.”
Duncan v. Louisiana, United States Supreme Court (1968)
When it comes to capital trials, it is not a jury of 12 diverse people who determine the outcome because only individuals who support the death penalty can serve on capital juries. What is worse is that this process does not need to happen. The U.S. Constitution does not require death-qualification; our legislature does.