STUDIES: Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment

A new study published in the Houston Law Review, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” explores the relationship of race to death sentencing in Harris County (Houston), Texas. In the study, Prof. Scott Phillips of the University of Denver explores patterns involving the race of both victims and defendants, while controlling for other variables. Phillips concludes death sentences were more likely to be imposed in cases with white victims than in those with black victims, and that death sentences were more likely to be imposed on black defendants than on white defendants in the county.

With respect to the defendant bias, which has not appeared in some other race studies, Phillips found "The DA pursued death against black defendants and white defendants at the same rate, but controlling for confounders revealed the disparate treatment of black defendants. The apparent equal treatment is misleading because black defendants committed murders that were less “serious” along several dimensions. Despite the fact that the DA was considerably more likely to pursue death against black defendants, juries were slightly more likely to impose death against white defendants. Presumably, the jurors' behavior is a response to the DA's occasional overreaching against black defendants. The net effect is that juries attenuate, but do not eliminate, disparities between black and white defendants that originate in the DA's office."

(S. Phillips, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” 45 Houston Law Review 807 (2008)). See Studies, Law Reviews, and Race.