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Mitigation in Capital Punishment Cases

This past August, a jury in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, decided on a death penalty verdict for 22-year-old Melvin Knight, who pleaded guilty to murder in the torture killing of a mentally disabled woman he held captive in a dingy western Pennsylvania apartment.

The prosecutor had argued Knight deserved the death penalty because his crimes were so depraved. The defense attorney had argued for life in prison rather than capital punishment citing Knight’s relatively young age and his lack of a prior criminal record as mitigating factors.

Any crime which is punishable by death by law of the state is a capital offense. However, capital punishment is generally reserved for the most serious crimes such as first-degree premeditated murder and intentional murder with special circumstances — serial murders or those perpetrated along with other violent crimes.

Before deciding whether to impose capital punishment, the jury is instructed to weigh the aggravating factors presented by the prosecution against the mitigating factors presented by the defense.

State laws vary in what are considered aggravating factors, but typically they go to the heinous nature of the offense, type of victim or motive behind the crime such as murders committed for money. Mitigating factors, also called mitigation, is evidence intended to qualify the seriousness of the criminal charge. In capital crimes, mitigating evidence shows why the defendant should not receive the death penalty. Mitigating factors generally involve the defendant’s background, including a history of mental illness, disability or a previous trauma suffered by the defendant. The absence of a prior criminal record is also a mitigating factor. The Supreme Court in Lockett v. Ohio (1978) stated a jury should be allowed to consider “any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.”

As New York criminal defense attorneys, we routinely retain mitigation specialists to investigate defendants’ background for possible mitigation evidence. The American Bar Association’s guidelines on the defense in death penalty cases requires that “The defense team should consist of no fewer than two attorneys…an investigator and a mitigation specialist.” (Guideline 4.1, page 952).

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