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What Makes a Death Penalty Case Different from Other Criminal Cases?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

[Editor's note: The federal government and the states in which the death penalty is legal follow their own respective criminal codes of justice that include additional guidelines for the pursuit and administration of capital cases.]


Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in Feb. 7, 2007 testimony to the Judiciary Committee of the Colorado State House of Representatives regarding "House Bill 1094 - Costs of the Death Penalty and Related Issues," stated:

"Everything that is needed for an ordinary trial is needed for a death penalty case, only more so:

• More pre-trial time will be needed to prepare: cases typically take a year to come to trial more pre-trial motions will be filed and answered.

• More experts will be hired.

• Twice as many attorneys will be appointed for the defense, and a comparable team for the prosecution.

• Jurors will have to be individually quizzed on their views about the death penalty, and they are more likely to be sequestered.

• Two trials instead of one will be conducted: one for guilt and one for punishment.

• The trial will be longer: a cost study at Duke University estimated that death penalty trials take 3 to 5 times longer than typical murder trials

• And then will come a series of appeals during which the inmates are held in the high security of death row."

Feb. 7, 2007 - Richard C. Dieter, MS, JD 

Ron Sylvester, Reporter at The Wichita Eagle, in a May 8, 2008 The Wichita Eagle article titled "Murder Trial Jury Shaped by Death Penalty Issue," wrote:

"Capital murder trials have two parts. In the first portion, the state must prove guilt. A unanimous verdict must be reached to avoid a mistrial. If the jury convicts on a capital offense, the trial moves to a second phase to decide if the death penalty is warranted.

In this portion, the rules change. Some rules of evidence are relaxed and a unanimous verdict is required only for a death sentence. A single juror who opposes a death sentence can yield a sentence of life in prison.

During the penalty phase, law requires the state to give reasons a crime rises to a capital offense. These are called aggravators -- factors... The state must prove at least one aggravator... The defense may provide evidence -- called mitigators -- that life in prison, without parole, would be more appropriate. Jurors must be able weigh the aggravators against the mitigators."

May 8, 2008 - Ron Sylvester 

The State of Arizona Office of the Attorney General, in its 2001 "Capital Case Commission Interim Report," explained:

"[T]he death penalty may only be imposed for first degree, premeditated or felony murder. The prosecuting agency handling the case must... file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty... In determining whether to seek the death penalty the prosecutor may weigh many factors. These include the apparent existence of any of the statutory mitigating factors... any information offered by the victim’s family; information offered by the defendant, his family or his counsel; and any other information the prosecutor believes relevant in a given case.

The trial of a capital case is divided into two separate proceedings. The first is the guilt phase of the trial, at which the prosecutor presents factual evidence as to the defendant’s guilt for the murder. The second phase is the sentencing proceeding, called the aggravation and mitigation hearing. During the aggravation and mitigation hearing, the prosecutor presents evidence as to the existence of aggravating circumstances, and the defense (or the prosecution) presents evidence as to the existence of mitigating circumstances...

Once the capital murder trial has begun, it proceeds much like any other first degree murder trial. [...] If the trial court decides that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt at least one of the statutory aggravating circumstances, and that there are no mitigating circumstances sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, the court shall impose the sentence of death."

2001 - State of Arizona Office of the Attorney General 

The Idaho State Judiciary, in its "Jury System" website section (accessed May 9, 2008) offered the "Idaho Death Penalty Criminal Jury Instructions," which stated:

"[W]hen the state is seeking the death penalty... If the defendant is convicted of murder in the first degree, there will then be a separate sentencing hearing. At that hearing, additional evidence may be presented and the jury will be given additional instructions. At the conclusion of that hearing, the jury will then decide if the defendant will be sentenced to death. If the jury decides that the defendant will not be sentenced to death, the judge will sentence the defendant to a term of life imprisonment, during which the defendant could not be paroled for at least ten years and possibly for life."

May 9, 2008 - Idaho State Judiciary