The Effects of Capital Punishment on the Administration of Justice

By Emrey, Jolly A. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Capital Punishment on the Administration of Justice


Emrey, Jolly A., Justice System Journal


Special Issue, "The Effects of Capital Punishment on the Administration of Justice," Judicature 89 (March-April 2006): 244-305.

The following are noteworthy contributions from a recent volume of Judicature, which focused on capital punishment.

* Brent E. Dickson, "Effects of Capital Punishment on the Justice System: Reflections of a State Supreme Court Justice," 278-81.

Judge Dickson, an associate justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, cites three areas most affected by death-penalty cases: decisional workload, administrative functions, and public perception of the judiciary. Although the number of death-penalty cases in Indiana are few (0.92 percent of total cases decided from 1995 to 2004), and the number of persons awaiting executions are even fewer (eighteen currently), capital cases make up approximately 7 percent of the appellate courts' opinions for the same time period. More important, it takes considerably longer to write opinions in deathpenalty cases than it does in other types of cases. The state provides for a number of procedural safeguards and allowances, such as mitigation evidence, expert-witness testimony, two appointed attorneys for indigent clients, and exceptions to rules regarding the length of appellant briefs.

In addition, the process of reviewing all of the trial court proceedings can be extremely time-consuming, as Justice Dickson notes, given that trial court records may be as long as 5,000 pages. The fiscal impact on the courts for a death-penalty case is also greater than in cases where the prosecution seeks life without parole rather than capital punishment. With respect to public perceptions of the judiciary, judges are concerned about public attitudes when writing opinions, but they also view their opinions in these cases as opportunities to act as republican schoolmasters; their opinions are often written in a way not only to explain their rulings but also to educate the public about the process.

* Michael Hintze, "Tinkering with the Machinery of the Death: Capital Punishment's Toll on the American Judiciary," 254-57.

Hintze argues that when all of its aspects are examined, capital punishment places an excessive burden on the judiciary. This burden is so excessive, he asserts, that it far outweighs any utility derived from death-penalty cases. Based on this analysis, the author concludes that legislators and judges should take action to eliminate capital punishment.

* Henry Leyte-Vidal and Scott J. Silverman, "Living with the Death Penalty," 270-73.

Surveying seven death-penalty-qualified judges from the state of Florida, the authors, who have served on both trial and appellate court benches, examine the effects of death sentences on the judges who pronounce them. The accounts from the judges include a range of responses. All note the "difference" in death sentences from other types of sentencing, yet some judges experienced more of an emotional response during the sentencing and post-sentencing proceeding more than did others. The differences in judicial response may be attributed to the perception of a judge's role in the criminal-justice process. However, there was a consensus among the judges that it is important to keep their emotional responses to a death sentence out of the sentencing proceedings as much as possible. In addition, the state of Florida now requires that judges, like juries and defense counsel, be specially trained in death-penalty trials.

* Dane R. Gillette, "Defending Death Penalty Judgments," 262-64.

This article poses a counter to the common wisdom that the state has better and greater resources than the criminally accused in capital cases. By expanding the lens to examine the burden on the California Attorney General's Office, which is required by state law to handle all post-conviction filings, hearings, and appeals across state and federal courts, Gillette illustrates how even one high-profile death-penalty case, for example, that of Robert Alton Harris, can easily "flip" the prevailing notion regarding the states' power and resources in criminal-justice cases. …

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