Handing down a death sentence in a criminal case is something the court does not take lightly. It is the most severe punishment the state can give a person, and since it involves taking a life, there are specific rules pertaining to what a jury must consider before deciding to sentence a person with the death penalty.
The Revisor of Missouri explains the judge must give some specific jury instructions in a death penalty case.
Before the jury begins deliberating, the judge must make them aware that they must use the standard of reasonable doubt to determine the outcome. This means that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty and committed the crime. There should be no doubt in any jurors’ minds about guilt.
If the prosecutor proves aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must still look at the case as a whole. The whole case, including the aggravating circumstances, must weigh into the reasonable doubt consideration. The jury should not be told to consider aggravating circumstances separately from the other evidence in the case.
The jury should consider mitigating circumstances. These might include things such as the defendants’ criminal history or his or her mental state at the time of the offense. Mitigating circumstances are often the backbone of a defense for death penalty cases. They play an important role in determining reasonable doubt.
In general, the jury should look at all evidence presented unless the judge instructs them otherwise. It is essential to meet the reasonable doubt standard in any death penalty case.