Legal commentators have long believed that federal judges treat capital appeals more favorably than noncapital appeals. However, due to the bifurcated nature of capital trials and the complexity of the ensuing appeals, no empirical research to date has proven that the guilt-phase claims of capital defendants are more likely to succeed on federal habeas review than the claims of other defendants. This Note addresses that gap in the literature. The Author analyzed 1,368 votes cast by federal appellate judges between 2013 and 2017 in murder cases heard on habeas review. In each of those cases, the defendant was under a sentence of either death or life in prison. Exploiting this unique dataset, this Note finds that federal appellate judges are significantly more likely to grant guilt-phase relief to capital defendants than they are to similarly situated noncapital defendants. It then rules out alternative explanations for this finding of a “sentencing effect,” such as differential attorney investment or dissimilarity between capital and noncapital defendants. After establishing that federal appellate judges do in fact behave differently in capital cases, the Note considers the normative implications of this finding. It ultimately concludes that the behavior of federal judges on habeas review is consistent with a generally shared principle of capital jurisprudence: preventing the execution of innocents.
* J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School; Ph.D. Candidate, Stanford University Department of Political Science. I am grateful for the extensive efforts of the editors of the Stanford Law Review in improving this Note. I also deeply appreciate insightful comments and suggestions I have received from David Brady, Bruce Cain, Lauren Davenport, John Ferejohn, Olivia Flechsig, Bryan Reines, and Robert Weisberg. I am especially indebted to the staff of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and attorneys Dawn Davison, Rob Lee, and Elizabeth Peiffer, who collectively helped me obtain the specialized knowledge necessary to complete this work.
The data and code used in this Note’s analysis are posted in the Harvard Dataverse Repository at https://bit.ly/isdeathdifferent.