Criminal justice professor's work cited in coverage of death penalty case appeal

June 18, 2018

Research on jury deliberations by Dr. Heather Pruss, an assistant professor of criminal justice studies at Bellarmine University, was recently referenced in coverage of a South Dakota death penalty case.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, wrote about the 1993 conviction of Charles Rhines for a fatal stabbing during a robbery. During sentencing, jurors asked the judge questions about what life in prison would look like for Rhines - a gay man - before deciding to send him to death row.

As part of an appeal of that conviction, lawyers filed affidavits indicating that jurors discussed Rhines' homosexuality when determining a verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that appeal earlier today without comment.

Dr. Heather Pruss
The Marshall project quoted from a 2014 dissertation by Pruss, who wrote, "if there is a potential homosexuality component to the case, this is something that is on the minds of jurors.”

Pruss conducted an exploratory qualitative analysis of more than 950 interview transcripts collected from former capital jurors in her 2014 study. She notes that, although the Marshall Project coverage was focused on how her analysis suggested the homosexuality component of a case may frame capital deliberations, her larger project centered on the way gender dynamics play out during a jury's discussions of life and death.

"Male and female forepersons adopt distinct approaches toward the position, and female jurors are more likely to hold out for a sentence of life without parole against a pro-death majority, and will face more concerted pressure in doing so," said Pruss. 

Her analysis demonstrated that issues related to gender and sexuality often come to the forefront of jury deliberations and decision-making in particular gendered case-types, such as capital murder cases with a component of rape, domestic violence or homosexuality.

More information:
Pruss, H. (2014). The role of juror and jury gender during capital deliberations: A guided qualitative analysis (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University).

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