ANSWER: No, not ordinarily.
The United States Supreme Court has made it clear since 1972 that the murder must contain some special circumstance that qualifies a case for the death penalty. In other words there is no “eye for an eye” justice in murder cases, or for that matter, in any criminal case. What the United States Supreme Court has said is that the states must decide specifically what circumstances qualify cases for the death penalty and establish objective standards and procedures to guide judges and juries so as to ensure a rational process in the infliction of the death penalty. It was the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty in this country that resulted in its being found unconstitutional in 1972.
The result of a multitude of challenges to the death penalty since 1972 has thus produced the result that an “ordinary murder” without any special circumstance may result in a sentence to life without parole but not the death penalty. What is an ordinary murder? We know that in Arkansas an “ordinary murder” does not include one or more of the following circumstances, called “aggravating circumstances,” exist in a case, to wit:
- A murder committed by a felon in prison;
- A murder committed by an escapee from prison;
- A murder committed by a person previously convicted of a felony involving violence;
- A murder of two or more people in the same criminal episode, and/or knowingly creating a great risk of death or serious injury to a person other than the victim of a capital murder;
- A murder committed to avoid arrest or escape from custody;
- A murder committed for money or pecuniary gain;
- A murder committed to disrupt or hinder a governmental or political function;
- A murder involving torture;
- A murder involving an explosive device in which the person knew that his conduct would create a great risk of death;
- A murder involving a victim who is vulnerable due to mental or physical disability or 12 years of age or younger.
A jury ultimately decides if the case is an “ordinary murder” finding whether any of the above “aggravating circumstances” are present and if so, the jury moves on to determine whether there are any “mitigating circumstances” to be considered. The jury weighs the aggravating circumstances against the mitigating circumstances and decides whether the death penalty should be imposed. A jury is not required to impose the death penalty even though the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances.
A mitigating circumstance is a condition that does not excuse or justify criminal conduct but may be considered in a jury’s determination of the degree of punishment to be imposed. For instance, a wife charged with shooting her husband may offer evidence of years of physical and mental abuse as a mitigation circumstance. The jury decides whether such a mitigation circumstance exists.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. For more information or questions, contact our office for more information. Our attorneys have more than a hundred years of combined experience in dealing with criminal cases.