The story of justice: Retribution, mercy, and the role of emotions in the capital sentencing process

Mary Sigler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


This essay examines Martha Nussbaum's prescription for tempering retribution with mercy in the capital sentencing process. Nussbaum observes that the operation of retribution in the ancient world resulted in harsh and indiscriminate punishment without regard to the particularities of the offender and his crime. In the interest of mercy, Nussbaum advocates the use of the novel as a model for a more compassionate sentencing process. An examination of Nussbaum's "novel prescription" reveals that the retribution that operates in the modern criminal law, and in the Supreme Court's capital sentencing jurisprudence, already accommodates the values of justice - individuation, particularization, and proportionality - that are characteristic of the mercy tradition. Moreover, the rich narrative approach that Nussbaum favors is by no means congenial to merciful punishment. Because the particularistic detail of the novel form is not confined to the sympathetic portrayal of the defendant, the emotionalism that Nussbaum urges encompasses as well emotional details about the characteristics of the defendant's victim. Such victim impact evidence is consistent with the novel form, but is unlikely to promote merciful judgment. Instead, the details of victim impact evidence can be expected to exacerbate a sentencing authority's inclination to judge a capital defendant harshly. The novel thus provides a poor model for the capital sentencing process because it fosters the sort of unchecked emotionalism that undermines the rational decision making that the Supreme Court has sought to achieve.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-367
Number of pages29
JournalLaw and Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Capital sentencing
  • Emotions
  • Mercy
  • Narrative
  • Nussbaum
  • Retribution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Law


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