In his new book, Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System, Craig Haney argues that capital punishment, and particularly the events that lead to death sentencing itself, are maintained through a system that distances and disengages people from the true nature of the task. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, relies on his own research and that other of other scientists in approaching the question, “How can normal, moral people participate in a process designed to take the life of another?”

The book cites three key factors that skew the justice system to facilitate death sentences: a jury selection process that favors those who are more likely to support capital punishment and to convict defendants, complicated sentencing instructions that jurors do not understand, and cultural and media myths about crime. “The flaws that riddle the system combine and operate in tandem. They help enable people to participate in behavior—actions designed to take the life of another person—that many of them otherwise would reject or resist,” Haney concludes.

In “Death by Design,” Haney recommends a series of extensive reforms could improve the fairness of capital trials. His suggested changes include encouraging education about capital punishment and alternative sentences such as life without parole, working with journalists to provide a more accurate and balanced picture of the real caues of violence in society, strengthening the requirement that attorneys fully and completely investigate and present to jurors the social history of defendants during the sentencing process, and revising jury instructions to improve their understanding of mitigation.

(Oxford University Press, 2005) See Books and Sentencing. See also DPIC’s report “Blind Justice: Juries Deciding Life and Death With Only Half the Truth.”