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Traumatic Youth Events Can Help Death Penalty Leniency Pleas

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events occurring from birth to age 17. A new study examined ACEs effect on jurors’ sentencing decisions in hypothetical death penalty cases. The study found that defense testimony elicited jurors’ leniency through their responses to ACE evidence. The study, by researchers at Minnesota State University (MSU), Mankato and St. Edwards University, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Criminal justice Prof. Tyler Vaughan of MSU Mankato said, "Though a significant body of research has examined the impact of mitigating

evidence and the role of culpability, as well as anger, on sentencing decisions, ACE evidence is

unique because it can elicit different emotional responses from jurors.”


Criminologists are increasingly studying ACEs as risk factors for criminal and violent behavior. Traumatic childhood events such as maltreatment; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; exposure to violence, mental illness, and substance abuse, and and parents’ abandonment, incarceration, or separation have had profound consequences for future criminal behavior. In the study, researchers recruited nearly 1,500 participants to take part in mock juror tasks in which defendants’ exposure to ACEs as mitigating evidence was manipulated. “Practically speaking, our findings suggest that investigating ACEs and presenting this evidence are critical in eliciting leniency in death penalty cases,” said Lisa Bell Holleran of St. Edwards University, who coauthored the study.



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