A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty

A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty

by Scott E. Sundby

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A gripping exploration of a jury's members' perspectives on the most wrenching decision: the death sentence

With a life in the balance, a jury convicts a man of murder and now has to decide whether he should be put to death. Twelve people now face a momentous choice.

Bringing drama to life, A Life and Death Decision gives unique insight into how a jury deliberates. We feel the passions, anger, and despair as the jurors grapple with legal, moral, and personal dilemmas. The jurors' voices are compelling. From the idealist to the "holdout," the individual stories—of how and why they voted for life or death—drive the narrative. The reader is right there siding with one or another juror in this riveting read.

From movies to novels to television, juries fascinate. Focusing on a single case, Sundby sheds light on broader issues, including the roles of race, class, and gender in the justice system. With death penalty cases consistently in the news, this is an important window on how real jurors deliberate about a pressing national issue.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230600638
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,075,613
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Scott E. Sundby is the Sydney and Frances Lewis professor of law, Washington and Lee University, and has worked on both the prosecution and defense sides in a variety of criminal cases and has testified as an expert witness on the death penalty and other legal issues.

Read an Excerpt

A Life and Death Decision

A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty

By Scott E. Sundby

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2005 Scott E. Sundby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9226-2


The Idealist

For Carlos Castillo, the night shift began like any other beneath the bright fluorescent lights that shone like spotlights on the store's stained and scuffed floors. He watched customers pump the coffee dispenser like they were drilling for the last barrel of oil, sold Budweiser by the can to tired-looking men dragging themselves home from work, and helped commuters rushing in to pick up a carton of milk or a loaf of bread as they hurried home to dinner. Carlos himself had eaten supper with his wife and two toddlers just before coming to work, and he soon felt himself slipping into the familiar rhythms of another long night that would see him behind the counter until dawn.

It was still early evening, so Carlos did not even bother to glance up as the door buzzer signaled a new customer entering the store. In a few more hours, when most people were home and safely settled into their nighttime routines, every buzz would draw his attention. As the clock's hour hand moved toward midnight, Carlos's job as a night clerk became one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Carlos might be paid minimum wage because of the job's low expectations, but if his earnings also had reflected risk, he would have been rich: More convenience store clerks and gas station attendants are murdered each year than police officers are killed in the line of duty.

Carlos had quickly grasped what every late-night clerk soon instinctively learns: In the early-morning hours, look immediately into the eyes of whoever comes through the door. This tactic was no poetic tribute to Cicero's declaration that "the eyes are the window to the soul," but a survival technique of spotting danger in the rheumy eyes of a drug addict or the angry darting eyes of a paranoid individual. No matter how tired a clerk has become, every buzz of the door opening at this hour triggers a momentary jolt of adrenaline, a jolt that lasts until it becomes clear that the person is not there to grab some ready cash for a drug fix.

Still surrounded by the comforting bustle of evening shoppers, however, Carlos never looked up when Steven Lane entered the store. Never made a cautious glance into Lane's eyes. Never noticed Steven Lane glancing edgily in every direction as he walked up to the counter. Instead, a camera mounted up on the wall captured what Carlos did not see. The camera with its blinking red light had been intended to act as a warning to would-be robbers, to scare them off once they realized that they were being recorded. Tonight, however, it would be pressed into service as a filming device, recording a silent movie of the ending of a life.

The gun's report startled everyone in the store, the sound seeming all the louder because no one expected it. Some customers ducked behind shelves full of potato chip bags and bottles of soda; others looked on in paralyzed shock as Carlos fell to the floor, the bloodstain rapidly spreading across his shirt. A few customers took sidelong looks at Steven Lane as he stood there with gun in hand and then watched him as he strode back into the night without having taken any money. Shaken by the suddenness of the murder, the customers might not have made the best eyewitnesses, but they were not really needed. The camera had stared on steadily without blinking.

The murder barely rated a mention in the local newspaper the next day, taking its place alongside the other news capsules that in single paragraphs give a dismaying glimpse of life in a city's harder parts once night-time falls—a world of gangland shootings and drug deals gone awry. If Carlos Castillo or Steven Lane had been a celebrity or if the killing had been part of a grisly Satanic ritual, the murder would have been splashed across the newspapers. Court TV would have carried the trial, and legal experts would have provided endless color commentary about what had happened that night. As it was, the only national mark that Carlos Castillo's death left was one more number being added to the FBI's homicide totals for convenience store clerks robbed and killed that year.

Although it did not command the attention of teams of reporters huddled by their minicams, Steven Lane's shooting of Carlos Castillo that night not only forever changed his life and that of his victim's family, it also started a ripple that eventually would wash over a number of lives. Carlos Castillo's death might not have caught the media's eye, but the criminal justice system still would have to ask what happened that night and what should be done. The responsibility for answering those questions would lie with twelve ordinary citizens who on the evening of the killing had been going about their own nightly routines, putting up the dinner dishes, helping the kids with their homework, easing onto the sofa to watch a sitcom. None of them knew as they settled in that night that someone named Steven Lane was entering a store and was about to fire a gunshot that would end one man's life and turn theirs upside-down. They were soon to watch a silent movie, and they would have to decide its ending: whether Steven Lane would live or die.

* * *

When the twelve jurors in The People v. Lane answered their summons to appear at the municipal courthouse for jury duty, they began their participation in an institution that has been lionized as the foundation of democracy and as a bulwark against tyranny. The jury has romantically been declared "the lamp that shows that freedom lives," and schoolchildren are introduced to the jury through Tocqueville's heralding of the American jury as a living lesson in democracy. These lofty accolades may be well deserved, but perhaps it is too easy to forget that the noble goals of the jury must be given life by those who are called to jury duty. In the case of a citizen called to duty as a capital juror, the demands can be especially great.

The Lane case was part of a nationwide study designed to examine the many assumptions that have been made about how juries decide whether to impose the death penalty. The United States Supreme Court, for example, has erected an elaborate edifice of rules governing the death penalty based on certain notions of how juries choose between life and death. The study's idea was to gain an understanding of how jurors actually make the most difficult decision entrusted to juries in the criminal law—the decision of whether a defendant lives or dies—by talking to the jurors themselves. Extensive interviews were conducted with a large number of jurors who had sat on capital juries, approximately half of whom had sentenced the defendant to death and half of whom had opted for a sentence of life.

Any hopes that the factors that influence capital jury behavior would be captured easily in colorful pie charts and snappy bar graphs were quickly dashed. What became clear after hundreds of hours of talking to jurors is that every capital case is its own drama with an evolving script and a unique cast of actors. Each trial is full of subtle moments and influences that simply cannot be captured quantitatively but that shape how an individual juror decides whether the defendant deserves to live or die. These are moments no lawyer can anticipate or plan for—a defendant unconsciously straightening his posture in a silent salute when his former Marine colonel testifies on his behalf, a sister's tears touching an emotional chord, a juror recalling her own experiences as the daughter of an alcoholic father. The drama, therefore, is a dynamic changing script. During the first act of the trial itself, each juror develops his or her own story about the defendant and the crime by drawing on the juror's personal experiences. In the next act of the drama, the jurors themselves become actors, bringing their versions of the story into the jury room to argue and bargain with the other eleven jurors over how to edit and merge the stories into a final ending: the verdict of life or death.

This is not to say that common themes and trends do not emerge among capital jurors. Quite to the contrary, the interviews revealed a number of insights into how jurors individually and collectively arrive at their decision of whether to impose the death penalty. In fact, although it sounds odd, predicting whether a jury will sentence a person to die is a lot like predicting whether two people will fall in love. Psychologists have identified factors that increase the likelihood that two people will become lovestruck—factors like comparable physical attractiveness and social status. In the end, however, the intangibles that have kept poets busy for centuries will determine whether Cupid actually finds his mark. The same is largely true with capital juries. Certain facts are likely to swing a jury toward life or death, but any one capital trial will have idiosyncrasies that will elude the sociologist's statistical regressions and can be captured only by listening to the individual jurors' stories.

By following the twists and turns of the Lane trial and the jurors who served on it, the door to the jury room can be opened to gain a better understanding of how the death penalty is imposed. Compared to many cases, the Lane case was not much as far as murder trials go. Other cases had flashy tabloid facts—severed heads, grotesque tortures, lovers' betrayals, innocent victims lured to their deaths, horrific childhoods that produced killers. The People v. Lane had none of these. The case was the generic murder case that has been tried in the quiet of a local courthouse countless times in countless cities: the trial of a nobody-defendant who had killed a convenience store clerk in a robbery gone awry. No glamorous victim. No celebrity defendant. No high-profile prosecutorial team or publicity seeking defense attorneys. In the universe of murder cases, the Lane case was the anti-O.J.

More than in any other case, however, the Lane jurors' personal struggles and the strife within the jury room underscored the humanness of the death penalty decision. A court clerk's flat intoning of "life" or "death" in reading the verdict form once the jury reaches its decision masks the turmoil, the pleading, the fighting, the praying, the crying that almost always takes place in the jury room as twelve men and women struggle to collectively pass life or death judgment on another person. The jurors' stories force the listener to move beyond a sterile legalistic view of the death penalty to an appreciation of the process as a wrenching human decision made by people who did nothing more than answer a jury summons. Although some remarkable stories emerged, they were not stories of heroes and villains but of ordinary citizens trying to make an extraordinary decision that had been thrust upon them. Certainly this was true of the Lane jurors and their struggles in the jury room.

Mark Twain once quipped that jury selection places "a premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury," but this is the rare case where Twain's barb misses its mark. The vast majority of jurors interviewed earnestly wanted to carry out the civic duty that had been placed upon their shoulders. Nor was it civic service that earned great rewards, monetary or otherwise. In some cases, jurors served on a jury for as long as a year, being sent home each evening as if they had just spent another day at the office. But this was a job that the jurors could not help but take home with them each night. Forbidden to talk about the case with anyone during the trial, even spouses, they had to struggle on their own with images of autopsy photos that kept them from eating dinner, stories of child abuse that haunted their dreams, frustrations in the jury room that spilled over into family relationships. And then, finally, after they had somehow agreed upon a verdict of "life" or "death" and listened to the judge read it in the courtroom as tears ran down the cheeks of many of them, they were told "good job" and sent back to their everyday lives as if they had been jurors on a dog bite case. As the Lane jury's story makes clear, though, for some jurors it was not so easy to step back into everyday life as if a pause button simply had been released.

This book explores the Lane case through the contrasting perspectives of those who served on the jury. Each of the first four chapters is dedicated to a different juror or group of jurors. This first chapter introduces the case through the account of Ken, who describes how he perceived the trial as it unfolded. For those unfamiliar with the capital punishment system, this beginning chapter also introduces the reader to the ground rules that are supposed to govern the decision making of capital jurors and to determine who ends up on our nation's death rows.

After providing Ken's detailed description of the case and interweaving his narrative with a brief primer on capital punishment law, we focus intently in the following chapters on how the individual jurors struggled with their consciences in deciding Steven Lane's punishment. The essence of this story is the drama of a jury that convinces a lone holdout to switch her vote from life to death. Listening to the voices of those jurors who earnestly believed they had to reach a unanimous death sentence for justice to be served—and, of course, to the voice of Peggy, the holdout who for days clung to a life sentence—opens a unique window on the struggle of the twelve individuals who had to decide whether Steven Lane should live or die. The final chapters of the book look at the Lane jurors' experiences in the broader context of other capital cases, including one case that resulted in a life sentence and, in many ways, mirrored the Lane jury's deliberations.

* * *

Ken lived in one of the many townhouse settlements that have sprouted up along interstates near large cities. Ten large, identical white buildings, each designated by a microscopically displayed letter, lay off the main drive. A trim and well-dressed man with a touch of gray in his hair, Ken answered the door with a nervous smile. The townhouse was nicely appointed with modernistic furnishings—white, steel, and glass abounded.

Ken had readily agreed to share his experiences as a member of the Lane jury. His account of the crime was as succinct, organized, and to the point as a reporter's column for the Local Crime beat. Ken's manner of speaking was cautious and deliberate with a lingering cadence that suggested that each word spoken had been consciously chosen for its meaning. Even his pronunciation reflected thoughtfulness and moderation, every syllable distinctly articulated, verbal expressions only rarely punctuated by a rise in inflection or a hand gesture. Like most jurors, Ken was comfortable referring to Lane by either his first or last name, often slipping back and forth between "Steven" and "Lane." It soon was apparent that Ken was an intelligent and composed individual who was intent on explaining how the jury had arrived at its decision.

Steven Lane had been a drug addict who supported his habit by robbing local stores, using the cash to buy his day's fix. Once the drugs were exhausted, the cycle started anew with a fresh search for money. Sometimes Steven would involve his girlfriends, almost always prostitutes, Ken noted, who would shoplift from local merchants to help feed their addictions. Ken stressed repeatedly that "there isn't any record of him ever holding a job," although Lane was now approaching middle age.

Although he used popular jargon to describe Lane, calling him a "professional criminal" who "knows all the angles," Ken also had clearly thought of Lane's life in contrast to his own life. He described Lane's "workday" as one where Lane and his day's companion would get up and "map out what they were going to do that day to get money for their drugs." Ken then verbally painted a rather striking image of how "you would be passing them going to work, possibly, as they would be preoccupied setting up how they would get the cash." When Ken put it that way, it was easy to see how he had imagined himself driving his Taurus to work, briefcase nestled next to him, Morning Edition on the radio, blowing on a too-hot cup of coffee as he drove by a street corner where a rumpled and groggy couple had their heads down together, unwashed hair obscuring their faces, plotting and laughing over whom they would rip off that day.


Excerpted from A Life and Death Decision by Scott E. Sundby. Copyright © 2005 Scott E. Sundby. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

The Idealist * The Chorus * The Holdout * The Twelfth Juror * Looking into the Kaleidoscope * The Utopian Jury Meets Reality * Conclusion

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