CPCC attorneys and mitigation specialists speak to a lot of different groups about our office and what we do. One common question we get is: what exactly is mitigation and when does it come into play?
Capital cases must have bifurcated trials: a guilt phase and a sentencing/penalty phase. If the defendant is found guilty of a capital offense during the guilt phase, the sentencing phase of the trial begins. Mitigation comes in primarily during the sentencing phase.
Mitigation is evidence the defense can present in the sentencing phase of trial to provide reasons why the defendant should not receive a death sentence. This evidence, which can include mental problems, remorse, youth, childhood abuse or neglect, a minor role in the homicide, or the absence of a prior criminal record, may reduce the culpability of the defendant in the killing or may provide many other reasons for a juror to vote for a life sentence instead of death. The Supreme Court has ruled that in deciding between the death penalty and life in prison, the jury may consider any mitigating evidence a juror finds relevant.
A federal circuit court recently described it well:
“Mitigation is not a defense to prosecution. It is not an excuse for the crime. It is not a reason the client should ‘get away with it.’ Instead, mitigation is a means of introducing evidence of a disability or condition which inspires compassion, but which offers neither justification nor excuse for the capital crime. ... It explains the influences that converged in the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds leading up to the capital crime, and how information was processed in a damaged brain. It is a basis for compassion—not an excuse.”
CPCC is fortunate to have two compassionate and hardworking mitigation specialists—Rhonda Carter and Alexandra Eben. They work hard to tell the life story of our clients.
As Rhonda and Alexandra have put it in their own words:
Rhonda: "How can you tell a story if you don’t become part of it? As mitigation specialists we are given the opportunity to be part of our clients’ environment by physically interacting with our clients’ system. We see the homes of where our clients grew up, the schools our clients attended, and sit on the couches or porches of the homes of family members and friends our clients often visited.
We connect the pieces between our clients and their life circumstances. We help to explain how those circumstances had such an immense impact on their decision making and the way they view things. We serve as a reminder that everyone has a story, but not everyone was fortunate enough to have positive inspirations and influences to overcome the difficulties that created those stories."
Alexandra: "Mitigation is listening to life stories of our clients and their family members. We then compassionately tell that story in a way that explains what lead our client down the road he or she took. We listen. We get the full picture of our clients' lives from friends, family, neighbors, and we tell their story. We hear the hardest parts of people’s lives."