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Abstract

Chivalry—that set of values and code of conduct for the medieval knightly class—has long influenced American law, from Supreme Court decisions to substantive criminal law doctrines and the administration of criminal justice. The chivalrous knight was enjoined to seek honor and defend it through violence and, in a society that enforced strict gender roles, to show gallantry toward “ladies” of the same class, except for the women of the knight’s own household, over whom he exercised complete authority. This article explores, for the first time, whether these chivalric values might explain sentencing outcomes in capital cases. The data for the article comes from our original study of 1299 first degree murder cases in California, whose death penalty scheme accords prosecutors and juries virtually unlimited discretion in making the death-selection decision. We examined sentencing outcomes for three particular types of murder where a “chivalry effect” might be expected—gang murders, rape-murders, and domestic violence murders. In cases involving single victims, the results were striking. In gang murders, the death-sentence rate was less than one-tenth the overall death-sentence rate. By contrast, in rape-murder cases, the death-sentence rate was nine times the overall death-sentence rate. The death-sentence rate for single-victim domestic violence murders was roughly 25% lower than the overall death-sentence rate. We also examined, through this study and earlier California studies, more general data on gender disparities in death sentencing and found substantial gender-of-defendant and gender-of-victim disparities. Women guilty of capital murder were far less likely than men to be sentenced to death, and defendants who killed women were far more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants who killed men. We argue that all of these findings are consistent with chivalric norms, and we conclude that, in prosecutors’ decisions to seek death and juries’ decisions to impose it, chivalry appears to be alive and well.

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