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Death penalty decision-making detailed in prof’s new book

2:39 p.m., Nov. 10, 2004--The death penalty is the underbelly of the American democracy’s criminal justice system and the citizens who are asked to serve as jurors in capital cases find it a demanding and often tormenting experience, Benjamin D. Fleury-Steiner, University of Delaware assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, finds in his new book Jurors’ Stories of Death: How America’s Death Penalty Invests in Inequality.

The book, published by the University of Michigan Press, draws on interviews conducted with jurors over the last decade through the Capital Jury Project and represents one of the first systematic surveys of the ways in which death penalty decisions are made.

What Fleury-Steiner discovered is that capital case jurors understand their responsibilities, that they are burdened by the awful truth that they hold the life of a fellow human being in their hands and that race is almost invariably a factor in sentencing.

“They fully understand the magnitude of what they are doing, and they take the work very seriously,” he said, “despite the fact that this is an incomprehensible exercise the state has required them to be a part of.”

Fleury-Steiner also discovered that the jurors were not at all reluctant to discuss the cases they heard and the deliberations that went into their decisions. For some, in fact, the interviews were therapeutic. “Many of the jurors interviewed wanted to talk,” he said. “They found that family members and friends simply could not comprehend what they had been through.

“What I try to do in the book is take the reader inside the world of the juror, through the stories of their experiences,” he said.

Fleury-Steiner said a key to understanding how the jury works is to know that individual jurors draw on their own identities in making their decisions. “They need to understand the defendant and do that by contrasting themselves with him or her,” he said.

That is a normal way to proceed, but it is one, he said, that carries a built-in snare because American society is “mired in racial stereotypes” that enable jurors to “write off the lives of defendants.”

“The argument I make in the book is that we can’t fairly evaluate an individual defendant because of our culture,” he said. “Although there have been some advances, America is still divided by race and class and there remains a cultural segregation.”

The jurors candidly offered views that were both overtly and covertly racist to their interviewers. Some said they believe African Americans are more likely to be criminals, an opinion they said was fueled by the media. Others took jabs at “these people,” whom they regard as products of a failed welfare system.

“That raises questions about punishment and also about our democracy,” Fleury-Steiner said. “If we aspire to be a society that embraces multiculturalism and diversity, an institution such as capital punishment is a hindrance because it compels citizens to draw on all the worst stereotypes and it does so in the name of the law.

“There is no doubt the defendants in these cases have done terrible things and should be punished,” he said, “but the imposition of the death penalty goes a step further. Because we are making jurors go the next step in deciding life and death, it reveals the danger of having this punishment in a democracy. It forces the jurors to dig back into places inside themselves and inside the culture that are not that different from the Jim Crow era, the days when there was racial domination in America. It brings out the worst in them.”

Fleury-Steiner pointed out that the first thing the South African Supreme Court did upon the collapse of apartheid was to abolish the death penalty. “They understood that it invites people to engage in intolerance and to accept the notion that some lives are better than others,” he said.

Fleury-Steiner said he does not blame the individual jurors because many would do the same thing in their place. He does, however, blame the state, which is knowingly allowing it to occur.

“The law needs to transcend the biases that make people see other people as inferior,” he said. “It is a fundamental human right of any defendant to be understood for who they are as an individual.”

Shifting from a philosophical to a personal level, Fleury-Steiner said the mere fact that the state asks citizens to make a life and death decision is “inhuman.”

“No one I talked to enjoyed being on a capital jury,” he said. “They did the best they could, and a large majority never want to do it again. They say they were tortured by the experience, and many suffer nightmares.”

Some responded when questioned during the jury qualification phase of the trial that, if asked, they could recommend the death penalty but then found when they got into the courtroom that they were no longer dealing in the abstract. Some reacted to the entire proceeding with anger, venting their rage at the defendant who forced them to be in the position in the first place. And, an overwhelming majority of jurors had their minds made up concerning a punishment before they even stepped into the jury box, he found.

Fleury-Steiner said that very early on in the Capital Jury Project, researchers found that jurors do not believe that a sentence of life in prison actually means life in prison. Their general estimate is that a life sentence means roughly 7-10 years.

Because of that, he said, there exists a certain disproportionality. For instance, in a case involving a quadruple murder in which jurors estimate the defendant will serve 10 years per killing, they would likely agree to a 40-year sentence. If that same defendant had killed one person, they would likely recommend death because they would assume that he or she would serve a relatively light sentence of 10 years.

“After completing the book, I am passionately against the death penalty,” Fleury-Steiner said. “But, I am even more passionately in favor of the jury system. It is an important part of democracy, and I strongly believe that 12 heads are better than one in deciding cases and sentences.”

Fleury-Steiner said he has been obsessed with the stories of capital jurors for more than a decade. His interest grew from a course on the philosophy of law and justice that he took as a pro-death penalty undergraduate at Northeastern University. The course made him think and provided him an introduction to William Bowers, a research scientist and principal investigator on the Capital Jury Project.

He began working with the data and found he was “fascinated with the jurors who took the interview as an opportunity to talk about how they made sense of the decision and the experience. It is an almost surreal experience. Average people are pulled out of their ordinary lives and told they have to make an extraordinary decision.”

Fleury-Steiner said the death penalty does not align neatly with democratic ideals, particularly in a nation such as the United States with a troubled racial history, but he does not believe it will disappear.

“If we have to have the death penalty, let’s make it so the process is more fair,” he said. “That is why I am interested in the jurors’ words, what they tell us and can teach us.”

Fleury-Steiner received his doctorate in sociology from Northeastern University, where he also earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in sociology. He joined the UD faculty in 2000.

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