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Wrongful Capital Convictions and the Legitimacy of the Death Penalty

NCJ Number
Karen S. Miller
Date Published
192 pages
This book analyzes over 1,000 newspaper accounts of 29 capital crimes which occurred during or after 1985 and resulted in exonerations prior to 2002 to close the gaps on the social construction of capital punishment, specifically a longitudinal review of the media’s representation of capital cases.
The data analyzed cannot determine what, if any, role the local print media played in these wrongful convictions. What it has revealed, however, is that commonalities existed in how these cases were presented. Each legitimation and relegitimation technique that was present in these articles was advanced by a reliance on State sources. While some papers were worse than others, they all reported the State’s messages. By presenting the State’s messages, they facilitated the agenda building efforts of the police and prosecutors. The reports consistently failed to question the integrity of evidence that prosecutors described to them. They summarized evidence in a way that presented the State’s theories as accurate accounts of the events. In doing so, they invariably reported “facts” that were eventually revealed to be incorrect. They consistently failed to question the accuracy of the information provided by the State. The relegitimation efforts, therefore, functioned not only to relegitimize the death penalty, but to relegitimize the newspaper and its reporting. The articles frequently summarized or described “key” evidence presented by prosecutors, but rarely reported alternate explanations. The reports analyzed overwhelmingly presented situations in a way that was favorable to the State. In summation, the reports of these crimes and trials were little more than presentations of the State’s message. The articles focused on the State’s theories of the crimes and presented the defendants as guilty. The reports of arrest, trials, and appeals were designed to restore the community’s moral order by reporting that justice was being served. The reports of exonerations worked to strengthen the legitimacy of the system of social control that erred originally. These dynamics in the local print media coverage of these capital cases do fundamental violence to the concept and reality of justice. References, appendix A-D, index


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