Grace Notes: A Case for Making Mitigation the Heart of Noncapital Sentencing

By Gohara, Miriam S. | American Journal of Criminal Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Grace Notes: A Case for Making Mitigation the Heart of Noncapital Sentencing


Gohara, Miriam S., American Journal of Criminal Law


Investigation and presentation of comprehensive life history mitigation is at the heart of successful capital litigation that has contributed to a steady decline in capital sentences. Noncapital incarceration rates have also begun to level, and various legal developments have signaled a reascent of more individualized noncapital sentencing proceedings. This return to individualized sentencing invites consideration of whether life history mitigation may, as it has in capital cases, hasten a turn away from mostly retributive punishment resulting in disproportionately harsh noncapital sentencing to a more merciful rehabilitative approach. The robust capital mitigation practice required by today's prevailing professional capital defense norms developed following the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment doctrine requiring individualized capital sentences that account for the unique characteristics of the offender. No such doctrinal imperative applies to noncapital sentencing. As a result, professional noncapital defense sentencing standards, while providing a general basis for various aspects of sentencing advocacy, remain relatively underdeveloped, though the same bases for ameliorating punishment in capital cases should apply with equal practical force to noncapital cases.

At the same time, institutional and doctrinal barriers-including high caseloads and lack of resources, the prevalence of plea bargaining, and the Supreme Court's "death is different" precedent-present formidable challenges to routine presentation of life history mitigation in noncapital cases. Therefore, the regular presentation of life history mitigation, lacking a constitutional mandate and operating in a structure different from that of capital sentencing, will depend in the immediate term on the initiative of criminal defense lawyers with the will to consistently present it in noncapital cases. A more widespread adoption of comprehensive noncapital mitigation practice will benefit individual clients, change the expectations of sentencing courts concerning what information they should have available before ordering punishment, and provide insight into the social causes of various types of crimes. Over time, as it has in capital cases, familiarity with the mitigating force of social history may serve as a powerful basis for empathy and amelioration of overly punitive noncapital punishment.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction..................................................................................42

II. Context, Implications, and Overview..........................................45

III. The Development of Mitigation as the Crux of Capital Sentencing...................................................................50

A. A Brief Review of Foundational Supreme Court Eighth Amendment Precedent in Capital Cases..............................................50

B. A Brief Review of Supreme Court Sixth Amendment Precedent in Capital Cases.......................................................................................51

C. Development of Mitigation as Standard Capital Defense Practice........54

IV. Professional Standards of Noncapital Mitigation........................57

A. Supreme Court Dicta on Individualized Noncapital Sentencing...........57

B. ABA Criminal Justice Standards...........................................................60

C. NLADA Guidelines...............................................................................62

D. Amsterdam Trial Manual.......................................................................63

E. Implications of Noncapital Sentencing Professional Practice Guidelines............................................................................................64

F. The Relevance of Mitigating Factors To Noncapital Sentencing..........65

1. Poverty and Trauma..................................................................... …

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