America’s Real Death Panels

Jurors in capital cases must pledge support for the death penalty.

Diana Novak

In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Willingham for setting a fire that killed his three infant children. Turns out he was innocent.

Next spring, Texas will decide whether or not to become the first state to admit it executed an innocent man.

U.S. researchers have found that in capital cases the people most likely to be chosen during the jury selection process are those with 'authoritarian' personality types

Cameron Willingham was put to death in February 2004, 12 years after being convicted of killing his three infant children in a fire at their Corsicana, Texas, home.

In August, the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) released a report that concluded none of the evidence from the fire indicated it was set intentionally and that the state fire marshal who testified the fire was arson lacked any realistic understanding of fires.”

The IAFSS was asked to investigate the case by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which was created in 2005 to re-examine questionable forensic evidence. The TFSC plans to continue its examination of the fire, but admits the report is a major step” toward exonerating all that is left of Willingham: his name. 

As in any jury trial in the United States, Willingham, who maintained his innocence to the end, was convicted by a group of his peers – 12 men and women who supposedly represented the community in which he lived. However, the prosecution in his case sought the death penalty, and that automatically changed the pool of people allowed to serve on his jury. 

For capital cases in which the jury will debate whether or not to sentence a convicted defendant to death, the Supreme Court mandates that jurors be death-qualified” – that is, they must pledge during the jury selection process that they morally support capital punishment and that they would have no problem signing a sentence that will result in the death of another human being.

Social science research indicates that this selection process seriously limits juries in capital cases to people who share similar moral viewpoints. During the last four decades, U.S. researchers have found that in capital cases the people most likely to be chosen during the jury selection process are those with authoritarian” personality types – people who believe that strict enforcement of laws is needed to maintain social stability. Authoritarians follow convention. They think the function of disciplinary action is to control criminals. They predictably tend to convict anyone (both the guilty and the innocent) who is unfortunate enough to be indicted and brought to trial before a jury. In other words, they believe one is guilty until proven innocent, and are thus more likely to accept the prosecution’s case rather than the defendant’s.

Psychologist and litigation consultant Brooke Butler’s research has shown that those on death-qualified juries tend to believe in a fundamentally just world – people get what they deserve and that everything that happens in a person’s life is a direct result of things they control. She found that such jurors are more likely to make decisions based on aggravating circumstances (the morbid facts surrounding a victim’s death, etc.) rather than mitigating ones. They are more racist, sexist and homophobic than their unselected counterparts, and less likely to accept mental illness or age as a defense. Death-qualified jurors are typically male, Caucasian, moderately well-educated, politically conservative, Catholic or Protestant, and middle-class,” she says. 

Victoria Springer, social science researcher and sentencing expert, argues that the people with authoritarian personality types who are typically selected to serve on death-qualified juries will face a serious mental conflict. These pro-crime-control jurors are required to adopt the attitude that the individual to be tried before them is innocent until proven guilty – which stands in direct opposition to their attitudes, orientation, and personality that has been specifically selected for.” 

From there, it is easy to understand how for such people the fundamental presumption of innocence conflicts with what the prosecution presents to them as the facts” – the evidence, regardless of strength. Springer says that if the assumption of innocence clashes with the death-qualified juror’s desire to remove a criminal from the streets, then the decision to render a guilty verdict reinforces what these jurors feel is their purpose on the jury in the first place.

Cameron Willingham, wrongfully convicted and executed by a Texas jury selected through the filter of death qualification,” was robbed of the right to have a jury of his peers decide his fate. Instead, he was put to death by those of his neighbors who innately believe that the American judicial system is a bastion of truth.

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Diana Novak is a fall 2009 editorial intern at In These Times and a contributor to Chicago INNERVIEW. She moonlights as a trial lawyer assistant.
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