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Rutgers Law Review



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suspect class; disparate impact


After Furman v. Georgia held that state statutes that allow for the imposition of the death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner violate the Constitution, the states were forced to rewrite their capital punishment statutes. New Jersey adopted a new statute in 1982. Despite the attempt of the New Jersey legislature to comply with the mandate of Furman, application of the statute has resulted in clear and significant discrepancies in the treatment of potentially capital defendants based on the race of the victim, the county of jurisdiction, and the race of the defendant. This article details a large study of all homicide defendants (other than those charged with vehicular manslaughter) where the death occurred after the effective date of the New Jersey statute. To determine whether the imposition of death was unconstitutionally arbitrary, the study examined both legal and extralegal factors that might predict whether the defendant would be sentenced to death. Unlike many previous studies reviewed by the article, which only compared defendants charged with crimes punishable by death, this study looked at the entire pool of potential homicide defendants. By separating case processing into discrete stages, the study shows the enormous role that prosecutorial discretion plays in determining whether a defendant receives a death sentence. While the facts of the case would have allowed the prosecutor to seek the death penalty in 404 cases, only 94 of those cases were brought to capital trial. This system of selecting defendants for capital prosecution has constitutional implications.

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