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Doing Death in Texas: Language and Jury Decision-Making in Texas Death Penalty Trials

NCJ Number
Date Published
317 pages
This dissertation examines the means through which language and culture make death-penalty decisions possible by analyzing jury decisionmaking in Texas death-penalty trials.

The study's focus is on how specific language choices mediate and restrict jurors', attorneys', and judges' actions and experiences when participating in and reflecting upon capital trials. This dissertation shows that when engaged in an overtly violent state practice, i.e., killing convicted individuals, jurors, attorneys, and judges conceal and confront their involvement in the violence inherent in this practice. When citing the actual act of execution, jurors often shift the decision to kill the convicted individual onto the state or deny that human beings have engaged in an enterprise constructed to kill another human. Another mechanism for jurors to avoid the anxiety linked to the killing of a fellow human-being is to embrace the linguistic dehumanization of defendants. Jurors effectively suppress empathy and the realization that the defendant is, in many respects, like themselves, albeit with a different background and set of experiences and behaviors. Any worth the defendant may have as a fellow human being is removed by linguistic repetitions that convince jurors the defendant has done things that disqualify him/her from being treated as a fellow human being. The dissertation argues that language is one of the primary resources by which jurors construct defendants as non-human, and thus decide to sentence them to death. The research involved 12 months of fieldwork, from 2009 to 2010, in and around Houston, TX. Methodologies included interviews of jurors, attorneys, judges, and prison staff, participant-observation in death penalty trials; audio-recordings and note-taking of these trials; and qualitative linguistic analyses of transcribed interviews and courtroom interaction. 2 figures and an extensive bibliography

Date Published: January 1, 2011