Using the Factorial Survey to Measure Death Penalty Support for Special Offender Populations: Juveniles, the Mentally Incompetent, and the Mentally Retarded

Denise Paquette Boots, University of South Florida
Kathleen M. Heide, University of South Florida
John K. Cochran, University of South Florida

A review of Supreme Court case law across the special offender populations of juveniles, the mentally incompetent, and the mentally retarded reveals considerable inconsistency in Supreme Court logic and its application of the "evolving standards of decency" test. Indeed, public opinion, as an indice of society's "evolving standards," offers a direct measurement of societal beliefs toward capital punishment in a real-time format. Yet most public opinion polls continue to assess death penalty support for "normal" offenders in single-item formats. In actual capital trials, however, there is substantial variability in the characteristics of offenders, and thus great relevance in gauging support for special classes of offenders. Thus, the present study utilizes a quasi-experimental approach called the factorial survey design in an attempt to measure capital punishment support for juveniles, the mentally incompetent, and the mentally retarded. Respondents' sentencing recommendations across the factorial vignettes are then compared to existing case law to determine whether significant differences exist. In addition, the analysis examines the degree of consensus across major sociodemographic classifications in death penalty support for each of these special offender groups. Lastly, the substantive, methodological, and policy implications of this study are discussed.

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Updated 05/20/2006