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Role of Mitigating Factors in Capital Sentencing Before and After McKoy v. North Carolina

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 24 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2007 Pages: 357-381
Janine Kremling; M. Dwayne Smith; John K. Cochran; Beth Bjerregaard; Sondra J. Fogel
Date Published
September 2007
25 pages
This study explored the question on whether the shift in mitigation procedures from a requirement of unanimous to non-unanimous acceptance actually had an impact on capital murder sentencing outcomes in North Carolina, and attempted to answer whether defense attorneys presented a greater number of mitigating factors for consideration by capital juries since the elimination of the unanimity requirement and whether the influence of mitigating factors as predictors of capital sentencing outcomes changed in the pre- and post-McKoy (McKoy v. North Carolina) eras.
In McKoy versus North Carolina (1990), the United States Supreme Court increased jurors’ discretion in capital sentencing by holding that jurors do not have to find mitigating circumstances unanimously, but that each juror may accept those mitigating circumstances they believe to be present. This decision provided the basis for this study’s research question, which was how the influence of mitigating circumstances as a predictor in death sentencing compared before and after this decision. Since each juror may accept mitigating circumstance independent of other jurors’ sentiments in the post-McKoy era, it was expected, and then supported, that the number of mitigating circumstances presented and accepted would increase. At the same time, the number of aggravating circumstances presented and accepted increased only slightly. In examining the impact of mitigating circumstances and whether there had been a change between the two eras, a logistic regression analysis revealed that there had indeed been a shift in the effects of aggravation and mitigation. Specifically, in the post-McKoy era, mitigating circumstances were found to have a diminished impact on capital sentencing outcomes while, conversely, aggravating circumstances carried an increased impact. Thus, even though the number of mitigating circumstance accepted by juries has doubled post-McKoy, they appear to have less influence on capital sentencing outcomes. In essence, the McKoy decision may have resulted in a conscious change in prosecutors’ selection and presentation of capital cases, leading to an enhanced effect of the aggravating circumstances aspects of these cases. Tables, references