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Death as a bargaining chip: Plea bargains and capital punishment

Jared Lee Loghner Undated Photo

Handout/Getty Images

In this handout provided by the Pima County Sheriff's Forensic Unit, Jared Lee Loughner is seen. Loughner pled guilty to the shooting spree at a political event outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, targeting U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).

Jared Loughner pled guilty on Tuesday to murdering six people and wounding 13 others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in a Tucson parking lot.

Loughner, it is widely assumed, pled guilty as part of a deal: in exchange, federal prosecutors agreed to not pursue the death penalty against him. As Loughner’s plea deal illustrates, capital punishment is sometimes used as a bargaining chip.

As California voters take to the ballot box this November to decide whether to ban the death penalty in the state, some are arguing that they should vote "no" for that very reason.

But is it necessary — or even ethical — to get a guilty plea by holding a gun to a defendant’s head?

There are surprisingly few studies on the topic; even fewer have been published in peer-reviewed journals.