Life Verdict or Hung Jury? How States Treat Non-Unanimous Jury Votes in Capital-Sentencing Proceedings
As of January 17, 2018
In 2016, the Supreme Courts of Florida and Delaware declared their death-penalty statutes to be unconstitutional because they permitted trial judges to impose the death penalty based upon a sentencing jury's non-unanimous recommendation for death. Those decisions left Alabama as the only state that permitted trial judges to impose a death sentences based upon a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation.
But Alabama is not the only state that permits judges to decide what sentence to impose if a capital-sentencing jury cannot reach a unanimous sentencing verdict. Missouri and Indiana consider the lack of unanimity to constitute a "hung jury" and then mandate that the court independently decide what sentence to impose if a capital-sentencing jury cannot reach a unanimous sentencing verdict.
No Missouri jury has imposed a death sentence since 2013, but Missouri state trial judges imposed death sentences in two cases in a four-month period between late 2017 and early 2018 under this hung-jury provision. In October 2017, a St. Charles County trial judge sentenced Marvin Rice to death after his jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a life sentence. In January 2018, a Greene County trial judge sentenced Craig Wood to death after his jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of death.
DPIC has reviewed the death-penalty statutes of the 31 states that permit capital punishment and the federal death penalty statute to determine how each jurisdiction proceeds when a capital-sentencing jury does not reach a unanimous verdict in the penalty phase of a capital trial. This is what we found:
The laws of more than 70% of jurisdictions that permit capital punishment (22 states, plus the federal government) mandate an automatic life sentence if a jury cannot reach a unanimous sentencing verdict. Five states allow the state another opportunity to seek death with a new sentencing hearing before another jury. Two other states—Indiana and Missouri—remove the sentencing decision from the jury following a deadlock and transfer the decision-making authority to the judge. Another two states—Montana and Nebraska—reserve the sentencing power to the judge in all death-penalty cases.
Here is a state-by-state breakdown of the applicable law:
|JURISDICTION||WHAT HAPPENS IF JURY CANNOT REACH UNANIMOUS SENTENCE|
|Alabama||State Can Retry Multiple Times. (Alabama is the only state that permits a judge to impose the death penalty based upon a jury's non-unanimous recommendation of death. Ten votes are required for a death recommendation. If the jury is not unanimous and fewer than ten jurors recommend death, the state can conduct a new sentencing hearing.)|
|Arizona||State Can Retry Once|
|California||State Can Retry Multiple Times|
|Indiana||Judge Imposes Sentence (Can Be Death or Less)|
|Kentucky||State Can Retry Multiple Times|
|Missouri||Judge Imposes Sentence (Can Be Death or Less)|
|Montana||N/A - Judge Sentencing based on jury finding aggravating factors|
|Nebraska||N/A - Panel of judges decide sentence; if the panel is non-unanimous, then automatic life sentence|
|Nevada||Judge Either Imposes Life or Can Empanel A New Jury|
|New Hampshire||Automatic Life|
|North Carolina||Automatic Life|
|South Carolina||Automatic Life|
|South Dakota||Automatic Life|
|U.S. Government||Automatic Life|