Frontloading Mitigation: The “Legal” and the “Human” in Death Penalty Defense

Document Type




Format of Original

27 p.

Publication Date

Winter 2010



Source Publication

Law & Social Inquiry

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

doi: 10.1111/j.1747-4469.2009.01177.x


The bifurcation of capital trials into determinations of guilt and sentencing presents defense advocates with what seem to be two distinct domains of knowledge—one apparently “legal” in character, the other “human.” But this epistemological division is actually not so clear in practice. This article dissects the procedural and strategic mechanisms through which these two domains unsettle and reconstitute the other. I provide a historical, empirically grounded account that explicitly articulates the connections between developments in legal procedure, prevailing standards of care concerning the need to conduct humanistic investigations of mitigating factors, and the on-the-ground trial practice of “frontloading” as a defense strategy. Drawing from documentary research, interview data with leading capital defense practitioners, and analytical observations based on my own experience as a mitigation specialist, this article presents itself as a case study of the processes of mutually constitutive rupturing that reconfigure the categories of the legal and the human.


Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter 2010): 39-65. DOI.