Capitol cases or death penalty cases in Louisiana are handled differently than other felony trials. In a capitol murder trial, the defendant is indicted by a grand jury and charged with first degree murder. This charge carries a possible death sentence by injection or an automatic life sentence if convicted. The process of picking a jury for a death penalty trial is lengthier because each potential juror must be questioned to make sure they are able to give both a death sentence and a life sentence. Also, unlike regular felony trials, capitol trials are actually two separate trials: the guilt phase and the penalty phase.
Jury Selection for a Death Penalty Trial
Picking a jury is more complicated for a capitol trial. Before a potential juror can qualify to sit on a death penalty case, he or she must agree that they can consider any and all mitigating factors prior to rendering a sentence of death or life. If addition, the potential juror must agree that if the evidence and the crime warrant the death penalty, he or she can impose that sentence. In short, a juror in a death penalty trial must be able to “consider” both a death sentence and a life sentence.
The Guilt Phase
The first trial is the guilt phase. In this phase, the jury will decide whether or not the defendant is guilty of first degree murder. If the jury returns a lesser verdict, such as second degree murder or manslaughter, the sentence can range from life to 0-40 years. The verdict of the jury must be unanimous on the first degree charge. For example, if the 12 member jury is deadlocked at 10 to 2, it is a mistrial. But if the jury comes back with a unanimous verdict finding the defendant guilty of first degree murder, the jury must then decide to give the defendant the death penalty or life imprisonment.
The Penalty Phase
This is the second phase of the trial and is known as the penalty phase. During this phase, the defendant’s criminal defense attorney will put on mitigating evidence. The evidence does not justify the crime but will explain to the jury certain factors they must consider before deciding whether to give defendant the death penalty or a life sentence. For example, if the defendant suffered extreme abuse as a young child, this is something the jury may take into account when making their decision. Other mitigating factors could be if the defendant was young or mentally incapacitated at the time of the crime or under the influence of another person. During this phase, the prosecution can introduce aggravating circumstances – these could be if the crime was committed in a particularly atrocious manner or the defendant was a contract killer.
Capital cases in Louisiana are not that common. A charge of second degree murder is much more likely. Second degree homicide carries an automatic life sentence but not the possibility of death. Since there is no option of the death penalty, the trial will be handled pretty much like any other felony trial. For second degree, there is only one phase of the trial and picking the jury is less time consuming and less expensive. Many times the District Attorney will simply try the matter as a Second Degree murder and avoid the pressure and expense of a capitol trial.