A new study shows that prisoners put to death in the US are hardly ever the worst of the worst criminals.
The study, published in Hastings Law Journal, examined 100 executions carried out between 2012 and 2013, many of these people are not cold, calculating, remorseless killers.
“A lot of folks even familiar with criminal justice and the death penalty system thought that, by the time you executed somebody, you’re really gonna get these people that the court describes as the worst of the worst,” Robert Smith, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina, told The Huffington Post.
“It was surprising to us just how many of the people that we found had evidence in their record suggesting that there are real problems with functional deficits that you wouldn’t expect to see in people being executed,” Smith added.
One of the people studied as part of the research is Daniel Cook whose mom used alcoholic drinks as well as drugs while she was pregnant with him. Cook’s mother and grandparents molested him and his dad abused him by burning his genitals with a cigarette.
Even later when he was placed in foster care, a “foster parent chained him nude to a bed and raped him while other adults watched from the next room through a one-way mirror,” said Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.
The prosecutor who presented the death penalty case against Cook said he would never have done had he known about his brutal past. Nevertheless, he was put to death on August 8, 2012.
The US Supreme Court has found that executing inmates with an intellectual disability or severe mental illness can violate the Eighth Amendment, according to which cruel and unusual punishment are barred.
In addition, the court has found that severe childhood trauma can be a mitigating factor in a defendant’s case, showed a press release accompanying the report.
Smith also noted that the courts had found, regardless of the heinousness of the crime, the prosecution must also prove the defendant is “morally culpable.”
He further argued people ended up executed did not have a chance to receive adequate representation at the trial level. In other words, juries were often unaware of defendants’ intellectual or mental health problems or their family history of extreme abuse.
He concluded that the reason why traumatic childhoods are raised is not necessarily aimed at making juries feel bad for the person on trial, but because of “decades of research” which shows these types of trauma can provoke the kinds of “functional deficits” that were visible in most of the cases studied in the report.