An Untrustworthy Face Means Increased Risk of Death Penalty

A new study has been released that argues that how someone looks has a great impact upon how they are perceived insofar as being sentenced for a crime. 

According to this new research, someone whose face gives them an untrustworthy appearance is more like to get more years behind bars and harsher sentences.

The study was done by comparing faces of those who had been sentenced for crimes and the sentence that they received.  The death penalty was included here.  According to these researchers from the University of Toronto, mugshots of folk were used. 

First, participants in the study were asked to look at the mugshots and rate them.  The photos were rated on a “trustworthiness scale” (1 being very untrustworthy and 8 being extremely trustworthy).

All the mugshots came from prisoners in Florida prisons who had been convicted of murder. 

Over 700 mugshots were used.

After the mugshots had been rated, the researchers compared the ratings to the sentences handed down.  They found that the lower the ranking on the “trustworthiness scale,” the harsher the sentence.

Facial Trustworthiness and Death Penalty Study Results

Of particular note (quoting from the abstract)(emphasis added):

“Untrustworthy faces incur negative judgments across numerous domains. Existing work in this area has focused on situations in which the target’s trustworthiness is relevant to the judgment (e.g., criminal verdicts and economic games). Yet in the present studies, we found that people also overgeneralized trustworthiness in criminal-sentencing decisions when trustworthiness should not be judicially relevant, and they did so even for the most extreme sentencing decision: condemning someone to death.…

“In Study 1, we found that perceptions of untrustworthiness predicted death sentences (vs. life sentences) for convicted murderers in Florida (N = 742).

“Moreover, in Study 2, we found that the link between trustworthiness and the death sentence occurred even when participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after originally being sentenced to death. These results highlight the power of facial appearance to prejudice perceivers and affect life outcomes even to the point of execution, which suggests an alarming bias in the criminal-justice system.”

- J. Wilson, N. Rule, "Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes," Psychological Science, July 15, 2015.

An alarming bias, indeed. 

Read the full report here. 



Colorado Trial of James Holmes Enters Sentencing Phase

This week, the State of Colorado proceeds in its case against James Holmes, the young man convicted last week of several counts of murder in the shooting of 12 people inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Specifically, Holmes was found guilty of 24 counts of first-degree murder for which he now faces the possibility of death.  (That was in addition to 134 counts of first-degree attempted murder, and 6 counts of attempted second-degree murder, which do not carry the death penalty.)

It's a case that has had lots of media attention; you probably remember that eerie photo of James Holmes with his "Joker-like" hair and strange staring eyes.

Colorado Theater Shooting Case: Sentencing Phase Begins

What happens now is the part of a death penalty case that Terence Lenamon is all too familiar: the sentence phase.  As in Florida, the Colorado prosecutors -- who are asking for death in the case -- will provide evidence in the form of documents and testimony of the "aggravating factors" they argue support capital punishment for James Holmes.

After the state finishes putting on that evidence, the defense team will present evidence of "mitigating factors" which argue against the death penalty for James Holmes. 

Read the Colorado Aggravating Factors and Mitigating Factors as they are defined by Colorado law here.  (Terry has collected these statutes for all the death penalty states as well as those that apply in federal court and military tribunals.)

Holmes' Schizophrenia isn't in dispute.

One key factor here:  the mental illness of the defendant and whether or not his insanity will block capital punishment here.  There is no controversy that James Holmes is mentally ill; he is diagnosed as schizophrenic.

The state is arguing that despite that diagnosis, Holmes was legally sane when he killed those people at the movie theater and should get the death penalty in order for justice to be served.

The defense is arguing that it would be cruel and unusual to do so.  Holmes' behavior in prison -- licking the walls, smearing feces on the walls, believing Barack Omaha speaks to him through the television, etc. -- leaves little doubt that he is very ill. 

Once again, the law's definition of "insanity" is tested against the reality of the defendant.  This part of the trial, with the same jury that found Holmes guilty, should take about a month to complete. 


Two States May Bring Back the Death Penalty

With all the fires being flamed over capital punishment in the United States and lots of discussion about ending the death penalty, it’s interesting to note that in many parts of the U.S.A., the death penalty remains viable and there are those who are working hard for executions by the state in their part of the country.

1. In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Files Motion to End Moratorium

Last week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, officially challenged the moratorium against the death penalty that has been put in place by Governor Tom Wolf.  Kane wants the moratorium lifted so the state can proceed with the death sentence given to Hubert Michael for the rape and murder of 16 year old Trista Eng in 1993. 

Kane is proceeding on behalf of the Eng family.  She argues that capital punishment is the sentence that was given and that the law should be carried out.  She has filed her request with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that the Governor's moratorium is unconstitutional. 

2. In Nebraska, Petition to Get Death Penalty on 2016 Election Ballot 

In May, the state legislature in Nebraska passed a bill and then overrode the Governor’s veto to make it become state law.  In it, the death penalty was repealed for Nebraska.

However, it’s not just Governor Pete Ricketts that wanted to keep capital punishment in Nebraska.  There is a large number of people that want the death penalty to remain in the state, and they’ve formed the group Nebraskans For the Death Penalty.

The goal of their group is to get enough signatures for a referendum, which would allow for the issue to be placed on the 2016 election ballot for all citizens of the state to vote.   They’ve got a deadline of August 27, 2015, to get enough people to sign up.  Both the state’s governor and its attorney general are actively supporting the group’s efforts. 

Meanwhile, over in Nevada....

In Nevada, the death penalty is on the books.  And the State of Nevada is spending lots of money for a brand new death chamber even though they don't have any executions on the schedule just now. 


What About Those Other 2015 Death Penalty Cases Before SCOTUS?

With all the talk about the Supreme Court of the United States okaying the State of Oklahoma’s lethal injection method of execution (see Glossip v. Gross), there hasn’t been much discussion about two other capital punishment cases that were pending before the High Court.


As we posted about a few months back, in addition to Glossip, SCOTUS had two other big death penalty cases to decide: Brumfield and Hurst.  

1.  Brumfield v. Cain

Out of Louisiana, the issue here is if the procedure that state has set up to decide if someone is mentally disabled, and therefore protected by this Eighth Amendment bar from being executed, past constitutional muster.  Here’s our post with details on the case.

Result:  on June 18, 2015, the High Court reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case back for a trial on the merits regarding the inmate’s intellectual disability and whether under Atkins v. Virginia he can or cannot be executed.

Read the SCOTUS Opinion in Brumfield (with Dissents) here.

For lots of analysis, check out SCOTUSBlog on the Brumfield opinion (and dissents, it was 5-4).

2. Hurst v. Florida

Coming from Florida, the only issue being decided by SCOTUS is if Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme violates either the Sixth Amendment or the  Eighth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 (2002).  Here’s our post with details on this important Florida death penalty case.

Result: Pending.  Amici briefs were still being filed in June 2015; no oral argument has been scheduled yet.

Follow the SCOTUS Docket for Hurst v Florida here.

Follow the Hurst case via SCOTUSBlog here.

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