Punishing Identities: Legal Consciousness Among European and African American Capital Jurors

Benjamin D. Steiner, University of Delaware
Naomi Ruth Bellot, University of Delaware

Focusing on post-trial interviews with some 67 white and African American jurors who served on 15 capital trials in which a black defendant received the death sentence, this article investigates the legal consciousness of ordinary citizens enlisted to make extraordinary decisions as jurors in death penalty trials. Findings reveal two competing narratives in jurors' descriptions of the defendant or their sentencing decisions. Whites rely on an underlying tale of "black inferiority as heard in the following three themes: cultural inferiority, racial justification, and a tale of a cold and callous black brute. Moreover, such variations on the tale of black inferiority are found to enable many whites to make sense of their decisions to impose the death sentence in cases involving black defendants. On the other hand, black jurors' opened-ended answers to questions regarding the jury's punishment decision are found to articulate a tale of "contesting white racism." Such a narrative is found to both represent whites as too culturally remote and thus unable to meaningfully judge an African American defendant's life at the same time that it may express more global concerns contesting white privilege and the need for racial empowerment and reform, including calls for greater inclusion of racial minorities in the jury system. These findings demonstrate the pervasiveness of race in the micro-dynamics of capital sentencing not readily apparent in prior analyses of capital jurors' perspectives of their capital sentencing decisions nor in prior analyses of the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes.

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Updated 05/20/2006