The penalty phase is about to begin. The same jury that convicted Carla Hughes of capital murder will now have to decide whether she should get the death penalty, or life in prison. That may sound like a fairly straightforward either/or proposition. However, the way the law requires the jury to reach that decision is a bit complicated.
During the sentencing phase, the State puts forth evidence of “aggravating factors.” Aggravating factors are basically facts that make the crime worthy of imposing the death penalty. Mississippi law limits those factors to the following:
(a) The capital offense was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment.
(b) The defendant was previously convicted of another capital offense or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
(c) The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons.
(d) The capital offense was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of, or while fleeing after committing one of the following crimes: robbery, rape, arson, burglary, kidnaping, air piracy, certain sex crimes, child abuse, or unlawful use of an explosive device.
(e) The capital offense was committed while attempting to evade arrest or trying to escape from custody.
(f) The capital offense was committed for pecuniary gain.
(g) The capital offense was committed to interrupt government functions or law enforcement.
(h) The capital offense was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel.
See Mississippi Code Annotated Section 99-19-101.
The defense will then have an opportunity to put on “mitigation evidence,” or evidence that tends to indicate the death penalty is not appropriate. Under the same statute, the law recognizes the following mitigating factors:
(a) The defendant has no significant prior criminal history.
(b) The defendant was suffering from extreme emotional disturbance.
(c) The victim was a participant in, or consented to, the defendant’s act.
(d) The defendant was an accomplice and played a minor role in the capital crime.
(e) The defendant acted under duress or under substantial domination of another person.
(f) The defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct, or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was diminished.
(g) The age of the defendant at the time of the crime.
Once both sides have presented their evidence, the jury will deliberate and determine the sentence. In order to return a sentence of death, the jury must find, in writing, that (1) the State has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, sufficient aggravating factors to justify imposition of the death penalty; and (2) there are insufficient mitigating factors to outweigh the aggravating factors.
The sentence of death must be unanimous. If the jury is unable to reach a decision as to the sentence, then the defendant is automatically sentenced to life in prison.
More updates to follow.