NEW RESOURCES: South Carolina Study Finds Arbitrariness in Death Penalty Along Racial, Gender and Geographical Lines

A sophisticated statistical study of homicide cases in South Carolina by Professor Isaac Unah of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and attorney Michael Songer found that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty when the victim in the underlying murder was white, if the victim was female, and when the crime occurred in a rural area of the state.

The authors first examined the raw data of homicide cases in South Carolina over a 5-year period and noted:

During the 1993 to 1997 period, 2319 non-negligent homicides with known defendants were reported in South Carolina. Out of these 2319, we identified 130 cases, or 5.6%, in which prosecutors sought the death penalty.
. . .
 South Carolina prosecutors processed 865 murder cases with White victims and sought the death penalty in 7.6% of them. By contrast, prosecutors sought the death penalty in only 1.3% of the 1614 murder cases involving Black victims. . . .The data further suggest that non-Whites are far more likely than Whites to be homicide victims in the state. About 62% of homicide victims in the study were non-Whites; virtually all of these victims were African American.
. . .
Despite the high number of Black homicide victims, South Carolina solicitors sought the death penalty in only 1.2% of cases in which Black victims were murdered by Black offenders. This data indicates that Black victim discounting was practiced in South Carolina during the period we investigate. Black victim discounting describes the situation whereby the lives of Black victims are discounted in value through the leniency shown their accused murderers. By contrast, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 9.7% of cases in which a Black defendant killed a White victim and 6.7% of White on White murders.
. . .
South Carolina prosecutors were 5.8 times as likely to seek the death penalty against suspected killers of Whites as against suspected killers of Blacks.
. . .
As we suspected, prosecutors seek the death penalty with greater frequency in cases involving male defendants and female victims. Female defendants committed 12.1% of the homicides in our dataset. However, female defendants account for only 4.8% of death penalty cases. Similarly, 24.6% of murders involve at least one female victim, but these cases comprise over 47% of capital prosecutions.


The researchers then subjected the raw numbers to an analysis that accounts for the factors that make one case more heinous, or death-worthy, than another.  They then concluded:

[T]he analysis indicates an odds multiplier of 3.10 for White victim cases. That is, South Carolina solicitors are three times as likely to seek the death penalty against killers of Whites as against killers of African Americans.

With respect to geographical arbitrariness, they related a particular example that demonstrates the freakish nature of the death penalty:

In 1984, Raymond Patterson fatally shot an elderly man in the parking lot of a
South Carolina motel. The line dividing District 11 and District 5 runs through the
parking lot. Authorities eventually determined that Patterson was several feet within
District 11 at the moment of the shooting, and he was eventually sentenced to death.
District 5, which has sent only one person to death row in the past 10 years,146 has a death
seek rate of only 3.8%. By contrast, District 11 has sent 12 people to death row during
the same period and has a death seek rate of 13.2%. If Patterson had committed his
crime only three or four parking spaces away, he almost certainly would not have
received the death penalty.
Patterson’s case epitomizes the freakish nature of capital
punishment that led Justice Stewart to declare in Furman v. Georgia that capital
punishment “[i]s cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel
and unusual.” (citation omitted).

They also concluded:

Legally impermissible victim and defendant characteristics also affect capital case
selection. Defendants accused of killing strangers are six times as likely to face capital
prosecutions as offenders who kill friends or family members in an identical manner.
Cases involving female victims are 2.5 times as likely to result in capital prosecutions as
cases with male victims. Perhaps most distressingly, the study confirms that insidious
racial disparities still haunt South Carolina’s death penalty system. South Carolina
prosecutors are three times more likely to seek the death penalty in White victim cases
than in Black victim cases. All of these results are statistically significant at or beyond
conventional significance levels.

(M. Songer and I. Unah, "The Effect of Race, Gender, and Location on Prosecutorial Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in South Carolina," 58 S. Carolina Law Rev. ___ (Nov. 2006)) (emphasis added) (Prof. Unah is also currently the Director of the Law and Social Sciences Program at the National Science Foundation).

See Race, Arbitrariness, and Studies.