STUDIES: The Effects of Judge vs. Jury Sentencing

(Click left image to enlarge). A new study by researchers at Cornell University examined the effects of Delaware’s decision to transfer capital sentencing authority from the jury to the judge at trial. The study used data from capital cases between 1977 and 2007, during which time Delaware made the shift to judge sentencing—one of very few states to employ that procedure. According to the study, “Judges were significantly more likely to give a defendant the death sentence than were juries.” During the era when Delaware relied on juries for sentencing, about 20% of capital cases resulted in death sentences. In the era when it relied solely on judges, 53% of the cases were given death sentences. Today, the state has a hybrid model in which a jury must unanimously find the existence of at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt to make a case death eligible. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge, which is given appropriate consideration.

The authors raised the question of whether judge sentencing in capital cases is constitutional under the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. Noting the Supreme Court’s focus on the country’s “evolving standards of decency” when examining sentencing, the authors commented, “The fact that only a few states currently allow judges to impose death sentences renders the practice suspect on that basis. Our research shows that the replacement of juries by judges has a strong and significant impact, increasing the likelihood of death sentences. This is also out of step with the dwindling number of death sentences imposed by juries.”

(V. Hans, et al., “The Death Penalty: Should the Judge or the Jury Decide Who Dies?,” working paper, October, 2014; DPIC posted Nov. 5, 2014). See Studies, Sentencing and Ring v. Arizona (providing information on each state’s sentencing schemes).