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Although capital punishment in the United States is subject to much social scientific scrutiny, there has been little ethnographic study of death penalty trials. This is not only an empirical lacuna, but also a theoretically and politically important one: by failing to take capital trials as primary objects of inquiry, the practices of lawyers, witnesses, judges, and others are viewed as products of, rather than implicated in, the institution of criminal justice. Based on an ethnography of fifteen death penalty sentencing trials across the United States during 2007, 2008, and 2009, this article seeks to understand the role of juries in capital trials. While judges customarily make sentencing decisions in American criminal cases, capital cases require jury sentencing. Key to understanding this unusual requirement is the recruitment of potential jurors into a role I term punitive citizenship. Through the process of choosing ‘death qualified’ jurors for trial, capital jurors are asked to call upon their own moral positions in conjunction with their responsibility to the collective to decide on appropriate punishments for defendants who are singled out for capital prosecution by the state. This ensures that capital jurors take personal responsibility for the punishment decision. The article argues that this process blurs the lines between state and citizen action, solidifies the types of homicides that are designated worthy of capital punishment, and allows the state to neutralize some of the historic problems with state-sponsored death sentences.





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Punishment & Society