Humanity’s Subtensions

Culture Theory in US Death Penalty Mitigation

in Social Analysis
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  • 1 Marquette University jesse.cheng@marquette.edu
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Abstract

Criminal law in the United States values conceptual definitiveness in its quest for resolution. But the work of open-ended humanization required of sentencing mitigation advocates in American death penalty cases defies this call for definitiveness. Even as formal legal processes seek to limit the knowledge that can be brought into the courtroom, new theoretical approaches that justify more understanding and fact-finding can help attain tangible goals of defense advocacy. This article provides an ethnographic account of how capital defense practitioners in the United States engage with anthropological theories of culture as a behind-the-scenes advocacy strategy that succeeds by exploiting the anti-definitiveness inherent in culture. I develop the concept of ‘subtension’ as an analytical trope to help elucidate these processes.

Contributor Notes

Jesse Cheng is an Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Before joining academia, he was a defense attorney and investigator in US capital cases. His research focuses on the ethnographic study of legal advocacy and argument, particularly as these apply to protections for the criminally accused. His publications include “Frontloading Mitigation: The ‘Legal’ and the ‘Human’ in Death Penalty Defense” (Law and Social Inquiry, 2010) and “The Social History in Death Penalty Defense Advocacy” (Critical Criminology, 2009).

Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

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