Dateline: April, 2011, Issue 4

Do jurors treat alcohol abuse and child abuse as mitigators in capital cases?

In the sentencing phase of capital cases, jurors frequently hear about a defendant's history of child abuse and alcohol abuse. The defense offers this evidence in mitigation.

Stevenson and colleagues (2010) investigated whether jurors used a defendant's child abuse and alcohol abuse as mitigating factors, aggravating factors, or ignored the evidence. Over 370 death-qualified jurors watched a sentencing hearing related to a murder in the course of an armed robbery. Jurors learned from the prosecution that the defendant had a history of six prior convictions, two of which were armed robberies, and a psychiatrist testified that the defendant was dangerous and likely to commit future crimes. Jurors learned from the defense that the defendant was physically abused by his father when he was a child, had been an alcoholic since age 12, was intoxicated at the time of the crime, and the times when he has been violent are when he was drunk. Thirty-four juries deliberated on the appropriate sentence. The researchers videotaped and analyzed these deliberations.

In deliberations, jurors discounted child abuse and alcohol abuse as mitigating factors. While a higher proportion of jurors' comments about child abuse were oriented toward mitigation (33%) than aggravation (7%), an even higher proportion of jurors' comments (44%) argued to ignore child abuse as a mitigating factor. Similarly, jurors made more mitigating (22%) than aggravating (18%) comments about alcohol abuse, and even more comments about ignoring alcohol abuse as a mitigating factor (26%).

The more strongly a juror supported the death penalty, the more he or she argued to discount child abuse and alcohol abuse as mitigating factors, and use them as aggravators.

The researchers recommend that jurors be instructed explicitly to treat child abuse and alcohol abuse as mitigating factors during penalty phases of capital cases.

Source Stevenson, M.C., Bottoms, B.L., & Diamond, S.S.S. (2010). Jurors' discussions of a defendant's history of child abuse and alcohol abuse in capital sentencing deliberations. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 16, pp. 1-38.