Capital punishment juries in question in O.C.

Juries could increasingly favor the death penalty, despite declining public support, Social Ecology professor finds.

When the case of Scott Dekraai – who pled guilty to murdering eight people in a Seal Beach salon in 2011 – goes to the sentencing phase of the trial, more than one-third of potential jurors could be rejected based on their beliefs about the death penalty.

The consequence? A jury that could be tilted in favor of capital punishment, even as national polls show that fewer and fewer people support it, according to a recent paper published in the Yale Law Journal by Nicholas Scurich, an associate professor in the School of Social Ecology.

During the summer of 2016, Scurich and his team asked nearly 500 potential jurors at the Orange County Superior Court House in Santa Ana about their beliefs in the death penalty, finding that 35 percent of them would likely be rejected from death penalty cases like Dekraai’s based on their beliefs.

“This is what the attorneys in that case will have to deal with. These are the exact potential jurors at the exact courthouse,” Scurich says. Since Dekraai already pled guilty, the jury will only determine between life in prison or death.

Death penalty cases are unique because the jury decides on both guilt and punishment; in all other cases, the jury determines guilt while judges dole out punishments. “It’s just a very different dynamic,” Scurich says. “What hangs in the balance is a person’s life.”

In the late 1960s through the 1980s, a series of cases established a principle called “death qualification” according to which certain potential jurors must be excluded based on their beliefs: those who would automatically seek a death sentence, those who would automatically reject one, and those who would try to ensure no execution by voting not guilty despite the evidence.

“If you’re looking at a continuum of people from those really opposed to the death penalty to those really in favor, the tail ends of the distribution are being lopped off,” Scurich says.

But in practice, the process excludes far more people who oppose the death penalty than who support it, resulting in juries that can be more prone to handing out guilty verdicts in capital trials. In Orange County, 35 percent would be excluded based on opposing the death penalty, while 9 percent would be excluded for favoring it.

That’s a significant increase from decades past, when studies elsewhere found that one-tenth of jurors might be rejected.

“More and more of the people who show up to the courthouse are saying ‘I’m opposed to the death penalty and wouldn’t even consider it.’” Scurich says. “The concern is that by eliminating a third of the people who actually show up for jury duty, who are you ending up with? It’s becoming less and less representative.”

--April 27, 2017