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UA Professor Jim Clarke is the author of five books on violent crime, including Last Rampage: The Escape of Gary Tison and the upcoming Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists. Between 1997 and 2002, he examined the cases of 179 murderers convicted in Pima County during the '90s. Among other findings, he discovered that whether or not a killer receives the death penalty--or "the needle," as he called it--could depend on the victim's social standing, bringing up concerns about equity in capital punishment.

What questions did you examine in your study?

Well, we were interested in three big questions. The first one was: How do these killers differ from the general population?

... Secondly, we were interested in how the death penalty is administered. Ten percent of these subjects were sentenced to death. So we wanted to compare people who were sentenced to death with people who were not. That involves what in the scholarly literature is called the problem of "over-inclusion." ... Is the death penalty reserved for those who are truly the worst of the worst, or are some others being included? That's "over-inclusion."

And the third question?

Among the worst of the worst, who, theoretically, deserve the death penalty, is justice being administered equally--that is, are all the worst of the worst being sentenced to death, or are only some of them?

How do these convicted killers compare to the general population?

We compared them to Pima County demographics, and we found that killers are disproportionately male, young, unskilled (and) unemployed. Fifty-five percent of them were high school dropouts, as compared to the state number (which) I think is 17 percent. ... We looked at family background and found that almost 70 percent came from broken homes, were raised by single people--sometimes parents, sometimes other relatives. This is much higher than the numbers for Pima County. Sixty-five percent of them were neglected or abused as children. And then, looking at symptoms of what clinicians call attachment disorder, (which) ... is associated with the absence of conscience, we found that 58 percent of these convicted killers had convincing symptoms of this disorder. ... Consistent with that, we found 80 percent had juvenile criminal records.

How did you measure who the "worst of the worst" among killers were?

We decided that we would come up with our own measure of heinousness, based on autopsy reports, criminal files and so forth. These six criteria were how we defined heinousness: defenseless victim, which would include children; more than one victim; brutality, meaning a slow, painful, torturous death; multiple wounds, which would reflect rage or whatever; mutilation, which we define as desecration of the body after death; and then, finally, rape and sexual assault. Then we scored all our 179 subjects, and we ranked them from the worst of the worst--type threes--down to those who were killers but didn't satisfy more than one or two of those criteria. And so theoretically, the death penalty, we said, which is intended for the worst of the worst, should include all of these type threes, according to our measures.

Were the worst of the worst consistently sentenced to death?

Well, we found in Pima County there was no evidence of "over-inclusion"--that is, prosecutors and judges in Pima County were putting on death row people who truly were the worst of the worst. ... However, there were 43 individuals who fit into this type three, worst-of-the-worst category. Only 35 percent received the death penalty.

What's the difference between the most heinous killers who were sentenced to death and those who weren't?

We found the only factor that distinguishes between those two groups was the social standing of their victims. If you killed a skilled, engaged member of the community, regardless of gender, regardless of race or whatever, you had a much higher probability of getting the death penalty. If your victim was a socially marginal, unskilled, unemployed loser like yourself, you're going to get a more lenient sentence. ... It means maybe prosecutors and judges (Arizona judges sentenced people to death until 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared only juries may do so) value some lives more than others.

What conclusions might be drawn from that?

If we restore equity in capital sentencing, it would mean that we would greatly expand the numbers of socially marginal young males on death row. ... This leads to a moral conundrum. You could either restore equity, or you could limit the death penalty by limiting it to only highly selective cases. ... The other possibility would be to abolish the death penalty altogether, because it doesn't work right.


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