In 1935, it took a jury 11 hours to find Bruno Hauptmann guilty of kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby and to decide he should be executed, says the Associated Press. It’s much more complicated these days. After three decades of Supreme Court rulings aimed at making the death sentence less arbitrary, juries decide punishment in a distinct and elaborate penalty phase of state and federal trials.
This has given rise to a relatively new breed of defense advocates called “mitigation specialists.” They delve into the social history of criminals, looking for a troubled childhood, a hard life, or any information that might sway jurors to act with compassion. A death sentence is far from a foregone conclusion once a jury decides on guilt. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, juries have imposed 93 life sentences and 49 death sentences, says the Capital Defense Network, which helps defense lawyers. In state cases, juries choose execution about half the time, says the Death Penalty Information Center. It attributes the higher odds of a death sentence in state cases to lower-quality legal representation.