Quantifying the "Worst of the Worst": Victim, offender and crime characteristics contributing to "Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel" findings in Alabama
This study explores the administration of the death penalty in Alabama by examining the Courts' use of the aggravating circumstance "heinous, atrocious or cruel" (HAC). Specifically, it examines whether there is a unifying thread in cases where HAC is found relative to cases where it was not. The Supreme Court ruled in Godfrey v. Georgia (1980) that, to remain constitutional, capital statutes must guide the sentencing authority's discretion by providing "clear and objective standards" that provide "specific and detailed guidance" to "make rationally reviewable the process for imposing a sentence of death." The Alabama Supreme Court has stated that HAC applies only "where the actual commission of the capital felony was accompanied by such additional acts as to set the crime apart from the norm of capital felonies---the conscienceless or pitiless crime which is unnecessarily torturous to the victim." To declare a murder as "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel," Alabama's appellate courts have indicated a case must include "physical violence beyond that necessary or sufficient to cause death," "appreciable suffering after the assault" or "psychological torture." In order to examine how Alabama trial courts have been applying the HAC Aggravating circumstance in practice this study gathered data from all 414 individuals sentenced to death in Alabama from 1976 to 2008. Information was collected about procedural aspects of the cases, perpetrator and victim characteristics, and characteristics of the homicide. I examined the relationship between HAC findings and various crime characteristics using a logistic regression model. Even though the results of this analysis indicated that some case characteristics may be statistically relevant in predicting whether a particular case will result in a HAC finding, this study's overall quantitative and qualitative examination was unable to identify a unifying set of characteristics that categorically distinguish the cases in which HAC is found from those where it is not. Because of these results, it appears that Alabama's construction of HAC does not result in a consistent application of this aggravating circumstance.