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Discourses of Death: Language, Juries and "Future Danger" in Texas Death Penalty Trials

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2008, $20,000)

The proposed dissertation research will investigate how death penalty jurors in Texas understand and apply the 'future danger' instruction. In the penalty phase of Texas capital trials (after the defendant has been found guilty), jurors are required to answer the following question: 'Do you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society?' (Tex. Crim. Proc. Code Ann. Art 37. 071 (2)(b)(1)). If the jurors unanimously answer yes to this question and do not find any mitigating circumstances to warrant a life sentence, the defendant is sentenced to death. Jurors are given no guidance from the court on how to interpret or apply its terms.

This project will use ethnographic and sociolinguistic methods to probe how jurors understand and apply the 'future danger' question in capital trials. Specifically, the research will combine analyses of interviews with former capital jurors and detailed, linguistic analyses of transcripts of the trials on which they served. Both juror contact information and transcripts will be obtained from public records in Texas.
The interviews will be conducted with jurors from ten concluded capital trials, five of which resulted in death sentences and five in life. In addition, attorneys, judges, and witnesses from these trials will be interview. This integration of methods will serve, in the absence of access to actual capital jury rooms, to triangulate on understandings and constructions of 'future danger' and the roles these play in jury decision-making.


Date Created: September 29, 2009