Professor Brackette Williams (University of Arizona) will deliver her keynote lecture as part of the Crosscurrents of Commensuration conference. The keynote lecture is free to attend but booking is required. To book your place please click here or use the online registration link in this page.
How much do years of child abuse weigh? In what concept coinage can this weight be measured: experience, suffering, or some other concept? How much does a kill by forty stabs weigh? In what concept coinage can this weight be measured: heinous, cold, calculate, pleasure or relish, perhaps? Based on field and case data, this presentation will provide a conceptual analysis of the procedure known as “weighing and balancing,” in U.S death penalty litigation which requires jurors to sentence convicted capital offenders to death or life imprisonment by measuring the relative weight of mitigation (offender characteristics and circumstance of the crime) against aggravation (victim characteristics and offense as ways of killing that classify extraordinary elements of capital offenses). With death hanging in the balance, the legitimation of the legal system still requires humane sentencing, which means taking account of the human as an individual rather than as a mere representative of a category, the guilty offender. Thus, instructions that should “guide” juror discretion must neither provide nor allow jurors to devise a formula by which aggravation (forty stabs) and mitigation (years of child abuse) entail a conversion of different horrors to numeric values to be summed against one another. Barring this typical means for making different qualities commensurate quantities for or with standardized measures, how are concepts constituting mitigation as life experience to be formed and assessed relative to those constituting aggravation as elements of a crime? Does the procedure amount, as some scholars charge, to nothing more than the determination of death by metaphoric instantiation of the legal principle of proportionality, and thus, serves only to legitimate the legal system as such, while otherwise remaining inherently incommensurable?
Crosscurrents of Commensuration is sponsored by the Limits of Numerical research group at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, with generous support from the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF).