The Death Penalty Is Not Limited to the Worst of the Worst

Arbitrariness

The Death Penalty Is Not Limited to the Worst of the Worst

The death penalty is not reserved only for defendants who have committed what society considers the “worst-of-the-worst” crimes.

People who commit heinous crimes have received a life (rather than death) sentence while others who commit much less egregious crimes face execution. For example, after convicting Zacarias Moussaoui for his role as a terrorist responsible for the attacks against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, a jury decided that he should serve a life sentence in prison. Jared Loughner—who pleaded guilty to killing six people, including a federal judge, and wounding 13 others, including a congresswoman, during a mass shooting in Arizona—was sentenced to life in prsion as a result of a plea agreement with the U.S. Government. James Holmes, who was convicted of killing 12 people and injuring dozens more after he opened fire in a movie theatre in Colorado, received a life sentence.

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer has raised several questions about the unpredictability of death sentences:

  • Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death pen­alty (due to aggravators of a prior felony conviction and an after-the-fact robbery), while another defendant does not, despite having kidnapped, raped, and murdered a young mother while leaving her infant baby to die at the scene of the crime?
  • Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death pen­alty (as a result of aggravating circumstances of having a prior felony conviction and acting recklessly with a gun), while another defendant does not, despite having committed a “triple murder” by killing a young man and his pregnant wife?
  • Why does one defendant who participated in a single-victim murder-for-hire scheme (plus an after-the­-fact robbery) receive the death penalty, while another defendant does not, despite having stabbed his wife 60 times and killed his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son while they slept?
  • In attempt to answer these discrepancies, Justice Breyer ultimately concluded: “[W]hether one looks at research indicating that irrelevant or improper factors—such as race, gender, local geography, and resources—do significantly determine who receives the death penalty, or whether one looks at research indicating that proper factors—such as ‘egregiousness’—do not determine who receives the death penalty, the legal conclusion must be the same: The research strongly suggests that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily.”

Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. ___ (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting).