Before the Verdict, Should a Jury Know All the Options? ; Supreme Court Weighs Whether Jurors Must Be Informed about Possibility of Life without Parole

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Before the Verdict, Should a Jury Know All the Options? ; Supreme Court Weighs Whether Jurors Must Be Informed about Possibility of Life without Parole


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Serving on a jury in a death-penalty case is one of the most challenging civic responsibilities any American may encounter.

But it is made even more difficult when jurors are kept in the dark about possible alternative sentences of a convicted murderer facing death.

Today, the contentious debate over capital punishment moves to the US Supreme Court, where the justices are considering how much information jurors in death-penalty cases must receive to ensure they are not misled - or even tricked - into believing that a death sentence is the only appropriate verdict.

The case, Shafer v. South Carolina, arises at a time when the death penalty is under intense scrutiny nationwide. Sixteen death- row inmates have been exonerated over the past two years in large part through DNA testing that proved their innocence. Illinois has suspended executions, pending a review of the fairness and accuracy of capital-punishment trials and procedures, and some cities and counties have passed resolutions in favor of a moratorium.

The South Carolina case turns on a more narrow legal issue that arose in the trial of Wesley Aaron Shafer Jr., who was sentenced to die for his role in the 1997 death of a convenience-store clerk.

The jurors in Mr. Shafer's case were never told that, if they failed to return a verdict of death, Shafer nonetheless would spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of parole.

His lawyer says that extra bit of information might have resulted in a different verdict, essentially saving his client's life.

Prosecutors in South Carolina say information about parole should play no part in jury deliberations in capital-murder cases. It is for judges, corrections officials, and state lawmakers to decide when parole may or may not be appropriate.

But criminal-justice researchers have found that most jurors worry about a convicted murderer being released on parole and are more likely to vote for death to prevent it from happening.

"This should be a reasoned, moral choice," says William Bowers, director of the Capital Jury Project at Northeastern University in Boston. "What you have instead is this debate [during jury deliberations] infused with misinformation and mistaken assumptions about what the alternatives are."

Mr. Bowers adds, "It means the death penalty is infected with a severe bias."

National polls show that while two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment, less than half support it when given the option of sending convicted killers to prison for the rest of their lives. …

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