Death penalty support for special offender populations of legally convicted murderers: juveniles, the mentally retarded, and the mentally incompetent

Authors

  • Denise Paquette Boots M.A.,

    1. University of South Florida, Department of Criminology, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620, U.S.A.
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  • Kathleen M. Heide Ph.D.,

    Corresponding author
    1. University of South Florida, Department of Criminology, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620, U.S.A.
    • University of South Florida, Department of Criminology, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620, U.S.A.
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  • John K. Cochran Ph.D.

    1. University of South Florida, Department of Criminology, 4202 E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620, U.S.A.
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  • The authors wish to thank the State Attorney, Public Defender, judges, court personnel, and jury pool members of the 13th Judicial District of the State of Florida (Hillsborough County) for their cooperation and participation in this study. They also wish to thank Dr. Christine S. Sellers for her helpful comments and suggestions on this work.

Abstract

The U.S. Supreme Court recently re-examined the constitutionality of the death penalty in the context of two of three special offender populations of murderers (juveniles, mentally retarded, and mentally incompetent). The Court reaffirmed the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles 16 and 17, while reversing itself on the mentally retarded. In reaching its decision, the Court relied on society's “evolving standards of decency.” Using Likert-type items, this study is the first to have prospective jurors assess support for the death penalty for these specific offender groups. The public's support for the execution of each of the groups is then compared with existing case law. Descriptive statistics and regression analyses indicate that, as expected, the levels of support for the applicability of capital punishment to the various special offender populations are much lower than that for the general adult offender. Moreover, these findings are congruent with the holdings of the Court with one notable exception: a slight majority of respondents supported executing the mentally incompetent. Reasons for the public's apparent departure from the Supreme Court holding prohibiting the execution of mentally incompetent convicted murderers are discussed. The Court's continued role in protecting marginalized populations from “cruel and unusual punishment” is explored in the context of strong public sentiment demanding justice and finality despite changes in offenders' mental capacity. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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