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July 19, 2020

"American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials"

9780520344396The title of this post is the title of this recently published book authored by Sarah Beth Kaufman which now seem especially timely in light of the federal government's return to operating its machinery of death.  Here is the book description on the website of the publisher, University of California Press:

As the death penalty clings to life in many states and dies off in others, this first-of-its-kind ethnography takes readers inside capital trials across the United States.  Sarah Beth Kaufman draws on years of ethnographic and documentary research, including hundreds of hours of courtroom observation in seven states, interviews with participants, and analyses of newspaper coverage to reveal how the American justice system decides who deserves the most extreme punishment.  The “super due process” accorded capital sentencing by the United States Supreme Court is the system’s best attempt at individuated sentencing.  Resources not seen in most other parts of the criminal justice system, such as jurors and psychological experts, are required in capital trials, yet even these cannot create the conditions of morality or justice.  Kaufman demonstrates that capital trials ultimately depend on performance and politics, resulting in the enactment of deep biases and utter capriciousness.  American Roulette contends that the liberal, democratic ideals of criminal punishment cannot be enacted in the current criminal justice system, even under the most controlled circumstances.

The 15-page introduction to the text is available here, and here is an excerpt:

It would be sensible to assume that those who face capital punishment have committed the most atrocious murders and that their executions might serve as the strongest deterrent to others.  But these are not the criteria that determine who is “death-worthy” in the United States; ... Zacarias Moussaoui, who conspired to plan the 9/11 attacks, and Gary Ridgway, who was convicted of killing forty-nine women, for example, were both sentenced to life imprisonment.  Corinio Pruitt and Corey Wimbley each committed single robbery-murders and were sentenced to death by execution.  In the twenty-first century United States, between 14,000 and 17,000 homicides are committed each year, yet fewer than a hundred result in a sentence of death.  Those so chosen, according to prosecutors, judges, and legislators, are meant to be the “worst of the worst.”  During the past two decades, death sentencing has steadily decreased from its peak of 315 cases in 1996 to fewer than 50 in 2018....  This is a meaningful trend, but the capital punishment system continues to provide fodder for politicians touting “tough on crime” positions, feeding the myth that the capital punishment system identifies and punishes those most evil in American society.  Whether for or against the death penalty, few people are satisfied with the current system....

I came to think of the trials I witnessed as games of Russian roulette, unnecessary sport where someone would inevitably die, and that I had no power to stop.  Criminal defendants arrive at capital trials through a series of structuring logics ordained by racial classification and state power.  In part I, I take readers through the first major structuring logic: the construction of capital homicide.  From a vast backdrop of millions of human deaths a year, courts, legislatures, police forces, and prosecutors define some deaths as homicide — the result of malicious human intent — before settling on those worthy of being considered capital.  What I refer to as the “narrowing structure” of the capital punishment field is not unproblematic.  The cultural and legal norms that determine who eventually is tried by a capital jury follow confusing and often contradictory logics....  Importantly, the stages of capital narrowing are unknown to most of the parties involved.  Though I worked in capital sentencing for years, I had little idea about the mechanisms determining who was tried capitally.  Capital jurors, I will argue, are likewise and necessarily uninformed.  When they agree to participate in the capital sentencing process, they are assured that they are the last in a series of people who systematically ensure that those tried for capital murder are the worst society has to offer.

July 19, 2020 at 11:07 AM | Permalink

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