STUDIES: Race a Factor in Arkansas Death Sentences

A new study of the death penalty in Arkansas showed racial patterns in sentencing. University of Iowa law professor David Baldus’ study examined 124 murder cases filed in one district from 1990 to 2005. Even after adjusting for factors such as the defendant’s criminal history and circumstances of the crime, black people who killed white people were more likely than others to be charged with capital murder and be sentenced to death. “It suggests to us that there’s a real risk that race may have been a factor,” explained Baldus.

Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has conducted a dozen studies on the topic, said Baldus is considered a pioneer of research in the field. His discrimination study of more than 2,000 murder cases in Georgia in the 1970’s led to a challenge that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This study mirrors research that has shown killers of white people are more likely than those who kill black people to be sentenced to death. Baldus stated one of the most telling aspects of the research was that in the district studied no white defendants or killers of black people received death sentences. “The disparities are not normally as stark as this,” said Baldus.

From the study's list 66 death-eligible cases, blacks were defendants in only 38 of the potential death penalty cases, but nine of the 10 defendants for whom prosecutors sought a death sentence were black. Similarly, whites were victims in only 35 of the potential death penalty cases, but they were the victims in seven of the 10 cases in which the death penalty was sought.

(A. Davis, “Study indicates pattern in sentences,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 8, 2008). See also Studies and Race.