National Family Week is November 21 - November 27, 2004
Quote of the day

Death penalty decision a form of vicarious trauma?


I have been against capital punishment my whole life. As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes us both blind." The State killing an offender to punish them for killing seems contradictory, and counterproductive to me.

A new book out by Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware describes the vicarious trauma that many death penalty jurors experience. They are put in the position by the State of possibly authorizing the death of a human being. These jurors then become the instrument of death for the State. How do individual human beings deal with being put into such a God like position of being able to decide whether a fellow human being lives or dies, and does that not put them into the same position of the murderer that they sit in judgement of? They are condemning that person to death for the very thing that they themselves are doing. Could you authorize the killing of a person as a juror in a death penalty case?

The death penalty is the underbelly of the American democracy’s criminal justice system and the citizens who are asked to serve as jurors in capital cases find it a demanding and often tormenting experience, Benjamin D. Fleury-Steiner, University of Delaware assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, finds in his new book Jurors’ Stories of Death: How America’s Death Penalty Invests in Inequality.

The book, published by the University of Michigan Press, draws on interviews conducted with jurors over the last decade through the Capital Jury Project and represents one of the first systematic surveys of the ways in which death penalty decisions are made.

What Fleury-Steiner discovered is that capital case jurors understand their responsibilities, that they are burdened by the awful truth that they hold the life of a fellow human being in their hands and that race is almost invariably a factor in sentencing.

“They fully understand the magnitude of what they are doing, and they take the work very seriously,” he said, “despite the fact that this is an incomprehensible exercise the state has required them to be a part of.”

Fleury-Steiner also discovered that the jurors were not at all reluctant to discuss the cases they heard and the deliberations that went into their decisions. For some, in fact, the interviews were therapeutic. “Many of the jurors interviewed wanted to talk,” he said. “They found that family members and friends simply could not comprehend what they had been through.

“What I try to do in the book is take the reader inside the world of the juror, through the stories of their experiences,” he said.

Link: Death penalty decision-making detailed in prof’s new book.


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