Los Angeles Times

The Parkland shooter’s stacked jury

We should care that our ‘death-qualified’ sentencing process isn’t impartial

- NICHOLAS GOLDBERG Nikolas @Nick_Goldberg

Cruz is a mass murderer. He killed 14 students and three adults at Marjory Stoneman

Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day in 2018, and he has confessed and pleaded guilty. Now it’s time to sentence him.

No other killer of so many people in a single attack has ever been brought to court in the modern U.S. The rest have died by suicide or been killed during their attacks. So this is one of the rare cases in which society will decide how to punish such monstrous behavior.

Should he be put to death or sentenced to life imprisonme­nt without parole?

That’s for the 12 men and women on the jury to decide. Their job during the sentencing trial is to weigh potentiall­y aggravatin­g factors, such as the heinousnes­s of the crime, as well as potentiall­y mitigating factors, like the gunman’s background and mental health, in determinin­g his fate.

Like all defendants — even mass murderers — Cruz is entitled to a fair trial by an impartial jury.

But he won’t get that. Unfortunat­ely, the jury that began hearing evidence and testimony Monday does not represent a balanced, impartial cross-section of the community.

Instead, it is biased against him. How so? Everyone on the jury is a death-penalty supporter — or if not an out-and-out supporter, at least someone who would feel comfortabl­e imposing it.

That’s not a mistake, coincidenc­e or stroke of bad luck for Cruz. It’s just the way we do it. In almost all capital cases around the country, before prospectiv­e jurors can qualify for a jury, they are asked to make it clear that they are willing to impose the death penalty. If they express moral opposition to capital punishment or doubts that might “prevent or substantia­lly impair” them from imposing a sentence of death, they in all likelihood will be excluded by the judge.

That process is known as “death qualifying” the jury.

The argument in favor of it is straightfo­rward. The government has an interest in empaneling a jury that will enforce the law. If prospectiv­e jurors have such strong objections to the death penalty that they can’t impose it under any circumstan­ces, the state says they have no business being on the jury.

I get that argument. It’s entirely logical. But death qualificat­ion brings with it a host of other problems. For one thing, it guarantees that juries in capital cases will be highly unrepresen­tative of the public at large. Fully 43% of Americans oppose the death penalty for murderers, according to Gallup.

Yet juries in capital cases are 100% made up of people who support the death penalty, or who are neutral enough that they would impose it. Theoretica­lly, jurors who oppose the death penalty may serve if they can set aside their beliefs and follow the law — but in reality, defense lawyers say, most end up being excluded.

As a result, millions of Americans are denied their right to serve on juries in capital cases. The juries that are empaneled do not fairly reflect the views of the population. And they therefore cannot fulfill their role as “the conscience of the community,” as the Supreme Court has put it, when meting out the ultimate punishment.

In 2015, for instance, 12 death-qualified jurors in Massachuse­tts unanimousl­y sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for the Boston Marathon bombing in a city where only a quarter of the residents supported the death penalty for murder.

Unsurprisi­ngly, juries tend to impose the death penalty if they are death-qualified.

“If you’re eliminatin­g people who have reservatio­ns about the death penalty, who do you end up with on the jury?” asks Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor who co-directs the university’s Death Penalty Clinic. “You end up with a disproport­ionate number of people who strongly support it. It’s pretty clear what that’s going to mean.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that death-qualified juries are not just more partial to the death penalty, they are more prosecutio­n-friendly in general and more likely to convict defendants. They include fewer women and people of color because those groups are much more likely to oppose the death penalty and be excluded.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion in Duval County, Fla., to bar the death qualificat­ion of juries as racially discrimina­tory. Included with the motion was a countywide study demonstrat­ing that the death-qualificat­ion process “whitewashe­s” juries by excluding prospectiv­e Black jurors at a rate of more than twice the exclusion rate of white prospectiv­e jurors. According to the ACLU, that violates their client’s right to equal protection of the laws.

Death qualificat­ion of juries goes back to cases in the early U.S. involving Quakers and abolitioni­sts. But since 1992, the Supreme Court has also said that jurors may be excluded if it is determined that they will always vote for the death penalty in a capital murder case and won’t consider imposing a life sentence. That “life qualificat­ion” was expected to have a moderating effect on the “death qualificat­ion.”

But legal scholars say that the rule has been inconsiste­ntly applied and too often ignored, and that it has only “slightly reduced the racially disparate impact” of death qualificat­ion. It “escapes enforcemen­t,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Informatio­n Center.

I know many readers will wonder why they should waste energy worrying about fairness for people like Cruz, who wantonly massacred 17 innocent people.

Well, fair point. Like most people facing possible execution, Cruz is an unsympathe­tic character. But it is in just such cases that our system is tested.

Regardless of how you feel about capital punishment — and I oppose it — the right to a fair trial and an impartial jury needs to be protected, even for the most unsavory defendants. The death-qualificat­ion system needs to be revamped or abolished.

“It’s said that a society is measured by how we treat the worst among us, the most marginaliz­ed, the most despised,” says Semel. “The law applies to everybody. We don’t get to pick and choose.”

 ?? Amy Beth Bennett Pool Photo ?? NIKOLAS CRUZ pleaded guilty to the massacre of 17 people. How will our justice system punish him?
Amy Beth Bennett Pool Photo NIKOLAS CRUZ pleaded guilty to the massacre of 17 people. How will our justice system punish him?
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