Race and the Death Penalty
News and Developments - Current Year
News and Developments - Previous Years
The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides
Chattahoochee Judicial District - The Buckle of the Death Belt: The Death Penalty in Microcosm
94.5% of Elected Prosecutors in Death Penalty States Are White
(Click image to enlarge). According to a study by the Women Donors Network, 95% of elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white and 79% are white men. An analysis by DPIC of the study's data further shows that, in states that have the death penalty, 94.5% of elected prosecutors are white. In 9 death penalty states (Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming), 100% of elected prosecutors are white. (N. Fandos, "A Study Documents the Paucity of Black Elected Prosecutors: Zero in Most States," The New York Times, July 7, 2015).
Jurors in Washington State More Likely to Impose Death on Black Defendants
According to a recently updated study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington "were four and one half times more likely to impose a sentence of death when the defendant was black than  they were in cases involving similarly situated white defendants."(Updated edition, including data through 2014, published 2015).The earlier version of the study had found that juries were three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. THE ROLE OF RACE IN WASHINGTON STATE CAPITAL SENTENCING, 1981-2012 (Jan. 27, 2014).
- A History of Racial Injustice - Timeline from the Equal Justice Initiative (2013)
- DPIC Summary of North Carolina v. Robinson, the first ruling issued under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (April 22, 2012). UPDATE: In 2013, the Racial Justice Act was repealed. In 2015, the state Supreme Court vacated the ruling in North Carolina v. Robinson, holding that the state should have been given more time to review and respond to studies showing racial bias in jury selection.
- Amnesty Report Finds Racial Injustice in Death Penalty - According to a new report issued by Amnesty International, race continues to play a strong role in U.S. death penalty cases. In "US: Death by Discrimination - The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases," (April 23, 2003) Amnesty states that:
Even though blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of crimes, 80% of people executed since the death penalty was reinstated have been executed for murders involving white victims.
More than 20% of black defendants who have been executed were convicted by all-white juries.
The report also examines case law and international policies related to race and the death penalty.
- Maryland Study Finds that Race and Geography Play Key Roles in Death Penalty - According to the findings of a Governor-commissioned death penalty study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the state's death penalty system is tainted with racial bias, and geography plays a significant role in who faces a capital conviction. The study, one of the nation's most comprehensive official reviews on race and the death penalty, concluded that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if they have killed a white person. See DPIC's Press Release. For more information about the study, see the Executive Summary and Complete Study (Released on January 7, 2003).
- Indiana Death Penalty Commission Prepares to Release Study - The Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission met recently to review the final draft of a year-long study on the state's death penalty. The draft report indicates that race of the victim plays a role in death penalty sentencing. The report included a cost analysis that indicates it costs the state 35-37% more to have the death penalty than it would if life without parole were the most severe punishment available. Governor Frank O'Bannon asked the Commission to review the state's death penalty system after innocent inmates were discovered and freed from death rows in other states. The final report is due to be released in December. (Indianapolis Star, 11/9/01)
- New Jersey Supreme Court Report Finds Disturbing Evidence Regarding Race and the Death Penalty - A report released by the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the state's death penalty law is more likely to proceed against defendants who kill white victims. "There is unsettling statistical evidence indicating that cases involving killers of white victims are more likely to progress to a penalty phase than cases involving killers of African-American victims," the report states. Appellate Division Judge David S. Baime, who conducted the study, said that the findings that more capital cases are considered in white, suburban neighborhoods should be examined by the attorney general's office. (Asbury Park Press, 8/13/01)
- "Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997" This study, the most comprehensive ever conducted on the death penalty in North Carolina, was released by researchers from the University of North Carolina. The study, based on data collected from court records of 502 murder cases from 1993 to 1997, found that race plays a significant role in who gets the death penalty. Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah of the University of North Carolina found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. "The odds are supposed to be zero that race plays a role," said Dr. Unah. "No matter how the data was analyzed, the race of the victim always emerged as an important factor in who received the death penalty." The study's findings will be presented to the North Carolina General Assembly which is currently considering moratorium bills in both the House and Senate. (Associated Press, 4/16/01 and Common Sense Foundation Press Release, 4/16/01) Read DPIC's Press Advisory.
"Unequal, Unfair, and Irreversible: The Death Penalty in Virginia" - This new report, published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, examines four key aspects of the administration of capital punishment in Virginia: race, prosecutorial discretion in the charging of capital crimes, quality of legal representation for the accused, and appellate review of trials resulting in the death penalty. The report's principal findings are:
- race is a controlling factor in the way the death penalty is administered in Virginia
- trial attorneys appointed to represent those on Virginia's death row are six times more likely to be the subject of bar disciplinary proceedings than are other lawyers
- the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has granted relief in only one of 131 capital cases between 1978-1997.
The report is available from the ACLU of Virginia by calling (804) 644-8080.
- The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000) A review of the federal death penalty by the Justice Department, released on September 12, 2000, found numerous racial and geographic disparities. The report revealed that 80% of the cases submitted by federal prosecutors for death penalty review in the past five years have involved racial minorities as defendants. In more than half of those cases, the defendant was African-American. Attorney General Janet Reno said she was "sorely troubled" by the results of the report and has ordered United States attorneys to help explain the racial and ethnic disparities. The report also found that 40% of the 682 cases sent to the Justice Department for approval to seek the death penalty were filed by only five jurisdictions. "I can't help but be both personally and professionally disturbed by the numbers that we discuss today," said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. "[N]o one reading this report can help but be disturbed, troubled, by this disparity." Reno is expected to announce more studies of the administration of the federal death penalty. (New York Times, 9/12-13/00) See also, DPIC's summary of the report findings.