Normal Homicides, Normal Defendants: Finding Leniency in Oklahoma's Murder Conviction Machinery

Article excerpt

Abstract: Data derived from Oklahoma Criminal Offender Records, Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals, and newspapers of record (1973-2008) were analyzed along with interviews of key criminal court officers, assessing the normal crimes concept (Sudnow 1965) and common-sense considerations in homicide case dispositions (Garfinkel 1956). Statistical analyses of charging patterns in murder cases in Oklahoma (n = 2,629) demonstrate that defendants' legal representation, both public and private, dispose of large numbers of cases as normal homicides and that specific predictor variables exist that influence the decision to treat a given homicide as normal.

Keywords: social disorganization, collective efficacy, informal control, formal control, crime, victimization

Introduction and Literature Review

This paper utilizes the concept of normal crimes developed by Sudnow (1965) to determine the extent to which this notion explains the manner in which death penalty cases are disposed in Oklahoma. Historically, in excess of 71% of homicide cases in Oklahoma are disposed of via plea negotiations that alter charging and reduce sentences. Thus, it is clear that a functional and enduring structure is in place that selects less offensive cases. It is not surprising, therefore, that the late ethnomethodologist, David Sudnow, in his classic paper "Normal Crimes: Sociological Features of the Penal Code in a Public Defender Office" (Sudnow 1965), analyzed a broad range of criminal offenses, finding that public defenders and prosecutors worked in a coordinated and complimentary fashion, in many cases coupling charge reductions with guilty pleas, all toward quick disposal and avoiding trial.

In a similar study of jury deliberations, Garfinkel (1956) found that panel members, in the face of opposing views on a given defendant's guilt, formed what he called "common-sense considerations that anyone could see," in arriving at the necessary unity in their verdict (Garfinkel 1956: 240-241). Sudnow's work looked at the interactions of supposed adversaries that were, in reality, cooperative relationships vital to the smooth operation of a criminal court. Sudnow (1965) documented opposing counsel's considerations of the "typical manner in which the offenses are committed, the social characteristics of the persons who regularly commit them, the features of settings in which they occur, and the types of victims often involved" as key organizing concepts in understanding and explaining the normality of a given homicide (Sudnow 1965: 256).

Normal crimes are the result of criminal justice actors creating a sense of structure through their interpretations of circumstances surrounding criminal behaviors and legal procedures. Out of these concepts Sudnow constructed the idea of normal crimes: an array of offenses, whose typical features (e.g., manner of occurrence, personal characteristics of the persons who commit them) both defense and prosecution agreed merited mutually beneficial legal compacts, thus dispensing with trials. Garfinkel (1967) observed jurors working across what could have been significant disagreements, using a body of common-sense knowledge and a range of procedures and considerations that permitted the finding of unanimous verdicts. Garfinkel (1956) found that jurors worked through a number of challenging distinctions (e.g. "fact versus opinion," "what the evidence shows and it says to each of us," "what was reasonable doubt") in arriving at unified decisions (Garfinkel 1956: 241). In reference to homicides in particular, Garfinkel (1949) found very early in the history of the death penalty research that courts formed norms, what he termed local knowledges, shaped by the racial discourse in a specific social landscape and that these imposed guidelines on the responses to certain crimes and treatment of defendants.

Both studies examined emerging and functional patterns of agreement within common sense-making procedures that any ordinary members of society would understand and use. …