Coast verdict against grain of national trend
The Associated Press, Aug. 26, 2002
When a jury sentenced a man to death last week for killing three members of a St. Martin family, it was only the second jury since 1998 in the three coast counties to return a death sentence.
While no one reason explains the trend, experts say changing social attitudes and distrust of the legal system are factors.
Since the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty for a period, prosecutors say the courts have given juries more guidance in how to consider the death penalty.
Additionally, prosecutors seek the death penalty in fewer cases because the law has limited when it is appropriate, said Harrison County District Attorney Cono Caranna.
But one of the biggest factors in Mississippi is that jurors have the option of giving life without parole.
“Before, when a jury gave life, they knew it didn’t mean life,” said Circuit Court Judge Kathy Jackson. “We now get to tell the jury, ‘You can give them life without parole.’ … It’s hard to get 12 people to decide on anything, especially something as serious as the death penalty. So, when you give them that option … “
Social attitudes have changed, too. Ann Lee is the daughter of a prosecutor and has worked in the court system in support roles for years.
“I think everybody’s gotten politically correct,” she said. “I remember when the death penalty was in vogue. That was just what happened when you did something wrong and 12 people said you were guilty.
Defense attorney George Shaddock said he thinks society has “just gotten civilized to the point that they’re not going to invoke the death penalty.
“It’s not just the coast, it’s nationwide,” Shaddock said.
And some say jurors are thinking for themselves more.
“Jurors don’t want to be conned,” said Hale Starr, with Starr Litigation Services, a national firm that studies juries.
“There’s more distrust of the system,” Starr said. “There was a time when arrest equaled guilt.
“And look at the stories of people released from death row because DNA showed they were innocent,” she said.