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Capital Punishment - Consideration Of Mitigating Factors

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bryan Treaties (Bryan Arbitration Treaties) to James Earl Carter Jr. - Further ReadingsCapital Punishment - Cruel And Unusual Punishment, The Costs Of Capital Punishment, Evolving Standards Of Decency, Capital Punishment For Dwi-related Offenses

Consideration of Mitigating Factors

In general, the jury may not be precluded from considering, and may not refuse to consider, any relevant mitigating evidence in determining whether capital punishment is the appropriate sentence for a particular defendant. However, the Eighth Amendment does not require courts to instruct a jury during the penalty phase that it has both an obligation and the authority to consider the mitigating factors deemed relevant by state law. Buchanan v. Angelone, 522 U.S. 269, 118 S. Ct. 757, 139 L. Ed. 2d 702 (1998). Instead, it is sufficient for a court to instruct the jury that it must impose a life sentence if, after considering "all the evidence," the jury does not believe that capital punishment is justified.

Once convicted and sentenced to death, death row inmates may again cite mitigating factors in making an appeal for leniency or clemency from the state's PAROLE board or another EXECUTIVE BRANCH department. Such appeals often cite mitigating factors that existed either before, after, or at the time the crime was committed. However, parole boards and related executive branch departments are under no obligation to give mitigating evidence any weight, and may typically reject a death row inmate's request for clemency without providing any reason for doing so.

For example, the Texas Parole Board was flooded with requests to grant clemency to Karla Faye Tucker, a death row inmate who had been convicted of brutally killing two people with a pickax during a 1983 robbery. Despite evidence that Tucker was 23 years old and high on drugs at the time of the crime, that she had been addicted to drugs since she was eight years old, and that she had been a prostitute since age 14, the sentencing jury found more compelling other evidence showing that Tucker had a history of violent behavior, that she had received sexual gratification every time she struck one of the victims with the pickax, that she had talked of killing two others to prevent them from telling police about the murders, and that she had planned future crime sprees to raid drug labs, kill the people who worked there, and steal their property.

During her 14 years on death row, however, Faye underwent a religious conversion to Christianity that many people believed was sincere. In fact, religious leaders from around the world, including Pope John Paul II, made personal appeals to have Tucker's sentence commuted to life in prison. The European Parliament and the UNITED NATIONS also publicly sought clemency for Tucker. The Karla Faye Tucker who was on death row, they all said, was not the same person who had committed the gruesome murders more than a decade earlier.

The Texas BOARD OF PARDONS & Paroles refused to stay the execution, finding that neither Tucker's gender nor her religious conversion were sufficient grounds to commute her sentence. "Mercy was already considered by the jurors when they sentenced her to die," the chairman of the pardons and parole board said. Then-Texas Governor GEORGE W. BUSH also rejected Tucker's requests for clemency. Tucker challenged the adequacy of the Texas executive-clemency procedures, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that "[a]n inmate has no constitutional or inherent right to commutation of her sentence." Ex parte Tucker, 973 S.W. 2d 950 (Tex. Crim. App. 1998). Clemency, the court wrote, is a matter that rests solely within the "unfettered discretion" of the executive branch of the state government. On February 3, 1998, Tucker became the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War.

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