Social Construction of Injustice: The Press and the Failure of the Death Penalty

Karen S. Miller-Potter, University of Kentucky
Scott A. Hunt, University of Kentucky

Since 1973, 99 individuals from 22 states have been exonerated of crimes for which they had received the death penalty. The cases of exoneration reveal that wrongful convictions have occurred for a variety of reasons, including mistaken identification, police and prosecutorial misconduct, defective or fraudulent science, perjured testimony, and false confessions. These cases present a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the United States criminal justice system in that they suggest that the system's most severe form of punishment, which is supposed to be reserved for only the most egregious cases for which there is absolute certainty of guilt, is handed out to some who are wrongfully convicted of crimes. The purpose of our paper is to explore how this potential crisis for the national public sphere of civil society is articulated in newspaper accounts. More specifically, we use narrative methods to analyze the cultural construction of the 34 exoneration cases which have occurred since 1980. Our data consists of newspaper accounts for each case from the point of the discovery of the crime to present, thereby capturing the unfolding dramas that include investigations, trials, exonerations, and the aftermath of the exoneration decisions. Our analysis suggests that the narrative concepts of plot, character, and genre can be used to understand how each phase of these cases are constructed as "normal" social problems, rather than delegitimations of capital punishment in civil society.

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Updated 05/20/2006