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February 19, 2022

"Death by Dehumanization: Prosecutorial Narratives of Death-Sentenced Women and LGBTQ Prisoners"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by Jessica Sutton, John Mills, Jennifer Merrigan and Kristin Swain.  Here is its abstract:

At the core of every capital sentencing proceeding is a guarantee that before condemning a person to die, the sentencer must consider the humanity and dignity of the individual facing the ultimate sanction.  This principle — that “death is different” and, therefore, requires consideration of the “diverse frailties of humankind” — echoes throughout the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  And yet courts are reluctant to remedy the devastating impact of prosecutorial arguments that dehumanize marginalized persons facing the death penalty, condemning these arguments while nevertheless “affirm[ing] resulting convictions based on procedural doctrines such as harmless error.”

These dehumanizing prosecutorial narratives are particularly problematic — and effective — when used against LGBTQ+ people, whose very identities have been criminalized, pathologized, and used as justification for condemning them to death.  Dehumanizing stereotypes not only reinforce and leverage social biases as factors in aggravation, but also “other” LGBTQ+ defendants in such a way as to minimize the impact of mitigating evidence.

This paper explores the use of dehumanizing prosecutorial narratives that target LGBTQ+ people in the pursuit of state-sponsored execution and argues that such narratives violate the Constitution’s protection of the dignity of persons facing loss of life or liberty.  Part I of this paper examines the history of dehumanization and criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, particularly those with multiple marginalized identities.  Part II sets forth examples of the most common death-seeking portrayals of LGBTQ+ defendants, including the Woman-Hating Gay Predator, the “Hardcore” Man-Hating Lesbian, and the Gender-Bending Deviant.  Part III analyzes how these dehumanizing stereotypes further disadvantage LGBTQ+ defendants by undermining mitigating evidence.  Finally, Part IV, drawing inspiration from the work of Pauli Murray, proposes a reframing of the constitutional doctrines limiting prosecutorial arguments in support of a death sentence, proposing that a focus on the dignity of the individual and the dignitary harm to the individual should be at the center of the inquiry.

February 19, 2022 at 01:00 PM | Permalink


This is a breathtakingly unhinged woke screed whose grasp on the reality of modern capital trials and sentencing is tenuous at best. I was a courtroom lawyer for 25 years in what was (then) a conservative state, and this stuff is a flight of paranoid fancy. How in the world does this get published?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 19, 2022 3:18:10 PM

Gotta agree, if someone is murdered, I couldn't care less about the gender or sexual preference of the person who did it. Guilty is guilty.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Feb 19, 2022 7:08:40 PM

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