Impact of State Differences in Sentencing Instructions on Juror Confusion in Capital Cases

Wanda Foglia, Rowan University

Prior research consistently demonstrates that capital jurors often do not understand the sentencing instructions they are supposed to follow when deciding whether a defendant deserves the death penalty. States are free to design their own capital punishment statutes as long as they meet constitutional requirements; and have adopted variations on three different types of statutes called "balancing," "threshold," and "directed" statutes. After overviewing the legal requirements, this paper examines whether comprehension is affected by differences in statutes and jury instructions. The quantitative and qualitative data were obtained from 3-4 hour structured interviews of jurors who had actually decided death penalty cases collected by the Capital Jury Project (CJP), a fifteen-state, multi-disciplinary study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Pennsylvania statute is a balancing statute with very strong language that has withstood prior legal challenges. Comparing the results in Pennsylvania with other CJP states with different statutes reveals statistically significant differences regarding jurors understanding of the standards they are supposed to apply and the role of mitigating evidence.

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Updated 05/20/2006