Like many UCI graduate students, Jesse Cheng knows that earning his doctorate hinges on the quality of his research. Yet Cheng’s under added pressure: His research not only determines the fate of his degree, it could save someone’s life.

Cheng, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, explores different ways to represent the life histories of defendants in capital punishment cases to aid in mitigation – the phase of the trail when jurors and judges determine whether circumstances in the defendant’s background justify a sentence of life over the death penalty.

“When deciding if someone should live or die, you can’t make a decision unless you look at the whole context of the defendant’s life,” Cheng says.

One of the few academics in the nation to specialize in mitigation research, Cheng approaches each case like an anthropologist.

“That’s the kind of work anthropologists do. We’re concerned about telling people’s stories in a way that challenges assumptions,” he says.

His field work involves collaborating with defense investigators as they visit the defendant’s former neighborhoods and talk to childhood friends, teachers, counselors, police officers, prison guards – anyone who might shed light on the individual’s background. Part anthropologist and part gumshoe, Cheng finds himself poring over school reports, medical records, court documents and police files – a paper trail that often reveals a history of mental illness, poverty or abuse going back generations.

“We almost always see patterns emerge where the whole family history is a history of suffering,” he says.

Cheng became intrigued by mitigation research as a student at Harvard Law School, when he took a class with visiting professor James Diego Vigil, who is a professor of criminology, law and society at UCI.

Vigil saw that Cheng was interested in anthropology and hired him as a research assistant. After getting his law degree in 2002, Cheng enrolled in UCI at Vigil’s suggestion. Eager for real-world experience, however, he took a one-year leave of absence to practice criminal defense law at a private firm in Irvine before returning to campus. Cheng recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for his dissertation research and hopes to complete his doctorate in 2008.

“I want to apply what I’ve learned as an anthropologist to mitigation research,” he says.

If he’s successful, defendants facing the death penalty could have him to thank – maybe with their lives.