Constructing Capital Crimes and Defendants:
Death Penalty Case-Specific Biases
and Their Effects
There remains "an inherent" discrepancy between what criminal
events mean at the moment of their commission and what they
stand for once they have entered the widening circles of
punishment, rhetoric and rebuttal, election platforms and the
multitude of communicative exchanges which compose the public
—Richard Sparks, Television and the Drama of Crime: Moral Tales
and the Place of Crime in Public Life (1992)
The media's intense focus on crime-related issues and the tendency to concentrate on unrepresentative, sensational crimes help to heighten the public s fear of crime and to elevate the importance that citizens attach to crime control as a pressing social and political issue. As suggested in the last chapter, in addition to this agenda-setting function, the media's coverage of crimerelated issues shapes the broad climate of opinion in which beliefs about crime control policy are formed. Beyond exaggerating the nature and amount of violence in our society and increasing fears of victimization, the media often portray violent crime as the exclusive product of evil, depraved, even monstrous individual criminals. This framework of understanding, in turn, helps to convince many citizens that only the harshest, most punitive sanctions—including the death penalty—are likely to be effective in the war against crime.
The media's general "theory" about the nature of crime and the motivations of its perpetrators serves as a constant backdrop when members of the public make judgments about individual crimes and criminals in their communities. At the same time, because capital cases involve very serious crimes, most of them generate substantial amount media attention of their own. That is, the typical capital case is surrounded by some degree of caserelated publicity that focuses on its specific facts and circumstances. Thus, in addition to the general effects of the media-created atmosphere surrounding crime and punishment in our society, it also is important to consider whether and how the public may be influenced by case-specific news coverage of actual death penalty cases.