North Carolina Law Review
child abuse, murder, death penalty, capital punishment
A jury that convicts a defendant of capital murder must then decide whether that defendant deserves a life sentence or death. Mitigating evidence is crucial to the defense at this stage because such evidence may provide the jury with a basis for imposing a life sentence. In this article, Professor Crocker argues that evidence that a defendant was abused as a child is paradigmatic mitigating evidence. A detailed presentation of the defendant's childhood experience and a cogent explanation of its long-term repercussions will enable the jury to understand why the defendant committed the crime, perhaps allowing the jury to sympathize or empathize with the defendant. By humanizing the defendant, an effective presentation of evidence of childhood abuse may make the difference between a life and a death sentence. Despite its potential mitigating effect, evidence of childhood abuse is not always effectively presented to the jury. Professor Crocker identifies and discusses impediments in the death penalty system that account for this failure. She then proposes changes to the system that could ensure the proper presentation of evidence of childhood abuse. Professor Crocker concludes with a reflection on the moral tension within society that underlies the legal system's difficulties: a tension between conflicting reactions that must be reconciled in the case where the child who has been abused and the adult who has committed murder are the same person.
Phyllis L. Crocker, Childhood Abuse and Adult Murder: Implications for the Death Penalty, 77 North Carolina Law Review 1143 (1999)