Death sentences fade as juries weigh 'social history' of defendants, UVA prof says in UHLC talk

Professor Brandon L. Garrett says the death penalty is "at the end of its rope," as American juries are more heavily considering a defendant's background and other factors in sentencing.

Professor Brandon L. Garrett says the death penalty is "at the end of its rope," as American juries are more heavily considering a defendant's background and other factors in sentencing.

March 30, 2018 — An emphasis on the social history of capital murder defendants, including treatment for mental illness, has been a driving force in the steady decline of death penalty sentences during the past two decades, according to a criminal law professor who spoke Thursday at the University of Houston Law Center.

Brandon L. Garrett, the White Burkett Miller Professor of Law and Public Affairs and the Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, discussed issues raised in his most recent book: "End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice."

In his presentation, co-sponsored by the UHLC student chapter of the American Constitution Society and the Criminal Justice Institute, he pointed to several other causes for the decrease in death sentences from peak years in the 1980s and '90s, including:

  • A huge increase in juries opting for life without parole during the past decade;
  • The increasing number of highly publicized exonerations of death row inmates;
  • The rise of county public defender offices; and
  • A decline in the murder rate, although the correlation between race and death sentences has grown.

"I don't see the death penalty having a future in this country," Garrett concluded.

As an example of the power of social history, he showed video of final arguments in the trial of James Holmes who faced 165 counts in the killing of 12 people and wounding of 70 others in the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in 2012.

While the prosecution focused on punishment and revenge, the defense called for mercy based, in part, on his history of treatment for mental illness. The jury opted for life without parole.

"There has been a sea change in how mental health is viewed," Garrett said. "It used to be that 'sick people did sick things,' but now it's different. If the mental health of a defendant has such an effect on capital cases, how does it affect shoplifting and other crimes?"

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