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Clemency, Capital trials, Death penalty, Sentencing, Punishment


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure


Clemency is an extrajudicial measure intended both to enhance fairness in the administration of justice, and allow for the correction of mistakes. Perhaps nowhere are these goals more important than in the death penalty context. The recent increased use of the death penalty and concurrent decline in the number of defendants removed from death row through clemency call for a better and deeper understanding of clemency authority and its application. Questions about whether clemency decisions are consistently and fairly distributed are particularly apt. This study uses 27 years of death penalty and clemency data to explore the influence of defendant characteristics, political factors, and clemency's structure on clemency decisions. The results suggest that although a defendant's race and ethnicity did not influence clemency, gender did play a role, as women were far more likely than their male counterparts to receive clemency. Analyses of political and structural factors point in different directions. Political factors such as the timing of gubernatorial and presidential elections and a governor's lame-duck status did not systematically influence clemency. However, how states structure clemency authority did make a difference. Clemency grants were more likely in states that vest authority in administrative boards than in states that vest authority in the governor. Regionality and time were also important as clemency grants were less likely in southern states and declined after 1984. Overall, these mixed results contribute to a critique that clemency decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent. Thus, important questions regarding fairness that plague earlier aspects of the death penalty process persist to its final stage.


This article predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.

Publication Citation

Published in: Virginia Law Review, vol. 89, no. 2 (April 2003).