A 2011 American Bar Association report on the death penalty in Kentucky revealed that a shocking two-thirds of the 78 people sentenced to death in Kentucky since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 have had their sentences overturned on appeal. Kentucky’s reversal rate is more than twice the national average, with a 31% reversal rate in capital cases and almost four times the 17% national reversal rate in all other case types. With a sentence as irreversible as death, troubling does not begin to describe the depth of concern many experience when viewing such a startling statistic.
A closer look at the cases behind this extreme reversal rate reveals some surprising patterns. Two of the more consistent factors leading to the reversal of death sentences in Kentucky are prosecutorial comments, which lead the jury to feel a diminished sense of responsibility in their ultimate sentencing decision, and jury instruction error. This essay focuses on the former, the minimization of the jury’s sense of responsibility, a factor in 12% of reversals. However, jury instructions are intimately intertwined with how the jury navigates and perceives their role. Accordingly, this essay will also discuss how aggravating and mitigating jury instructions play a role in minimizing the jury’s function, as well. Furthermore, this essay explores whether the concerns related to the minimization of a juror’s role are confirmed by empirical evidence, and concludes by suggesting ways to help jurors acknowledge the full weight of their responsibility in the event the death penalty continues to be a punishment in Kentucky.
Cortney E. Lollar, Getting Jurors to Awesome, 103 Ky. L.J. Online (2014), http://www.kentuckylawjournal.org/getting-jurors-to-awesome/.