Silenced Stories: How Victim Impact Evidence in Capital Trials Prevents the Jury from Hearing the Constitutionally Required Story of the Defendant

By Minot, Diana | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Silenced Stories: How Victim Impact Evidence in Capital Trials Prevents the Jury from Hearing the Constitutionally Required Story of the Defendant


Minot, Diana, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

Compare these two quotes. The first comes from a victim impact statement at a capital sentencing trial. The second is information presented on behalf of a capital defendant at another capital sentencing trial. The victim impact statement matches more closely with most people's experience in the world. This Comment will argue that, for the typical juror, the victim impact statement is much easier to identify with, drowning out the story of the defendant, who is faced with the prospect of capital punishment. This makes the emotional story of the victim the only story given meaningful consideration by the jury.

Cognitive psychology shows that humans filter new information through existing schema. (3) This Comment will define schemas and show how, because jurors generally have different life experiences than defendants, it is easier for the juror to identify with the murdered victim's schema than with the defendant's schema. Because of this, the stories told in victim impact evidence are unduly prejudicial, overwhelming any mitigating factors in a capital sentencing trial. Thus, the defendant does not have an opportunity to present evidence of his or her moral culpability as the Constitution requires in capital sentencing trials. (4)

This argument will consist of five parts. Part II will discuss the current state of capital punishment jurisprudence in the United States. Part III will give an overview of the current state of the law on victim impact evidence, outlining how the Supreme Court initially proscribed such evidence but later reversed itself, and in doing so failed to give guidance to lower courts on what manner of victim impact evidence was acceptable. Part IV will give an overview and explanation of what are known in cognitive psychology as schemas. This will include an explanation of how schemas cause people to filter information in a predetermined way, potentially ignoring information that does not easily fit into this format.

Part V will show how the schemas of most jurors cause them to easily accept the emotionally charged stories presented in victim impact statements, thereby silencing defendants' stories. Part VI will analyze the case of United States v. Sampson, contrasting the story of the victim told by the victim impact evidence with the story of the defendant told by mitigating evidence. (5)

II. THE CURRENT STATE OF CAPITAL SENTENCING LAW

To understand the argument against victim impact statements in capital trials, it is first necessary to understand the background of current capital sentencing jurisprudence. The death penalty's constitutionality is largely understood through the seminal case of Furman v. Georgia. (6) An overview of decisions regarding capital sentencing will show that, since Furman, the Supreme Court has focused its efforts on ending arbitrariness and discrimination in capital sentencing. Capital punishment is unique from other forms of punishment because it is absolutely irrevocable. (7) While law should always be fair, the irrevocability of capital punishment has led the Court to determine that it is especially imperative to be unwaveringly scrupulous and fair when meting out capital punishment. (8)

A. FURMAN V. GEORGIA AND THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT'S PROHIBITIONS AGAINST CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT

Furman and other Court decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s developed the constitutional doctrine that death sentences are "qualitatively different" from other criminal sentences. Strict oversight of state death sentencing was needed so that states' death-sentencing systems were evenhanded and nondiscriminatory. (9)

The state has much greater power than an individual defendant. Because of this, the Eighth Amendment attempts to level the playing field between the defendant and the state by affording extra protections to defendants to counteract the greater power of the state. (10) The Supreme Court has ruled that a sentence of death must be proportionate to a particular offense; otherwise, it is cruel and unusual punishment. …

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