STUDIES: Victims' Social Status Plays Influential Role in Death Cases

Scott Phillips, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Denver, published a study last month in the Law & Society Review focusing on the imposition of death sentences in relation to the victim's social status. Phillips studied capital cases in Harris County (Houston), Texas, between 1992 and 1999 and found that the social status of the victim in the underlying murder had a significant influence on whether the death penalty would be sought and imposed on the defendant. In examining 504 cases, Phillips found that defendants are six times more likely to receive a death sentence if they kill the highest status victims (whites or Hispanics who have college degrees, are married, and have no criminal record), compared to those defendants who kill the lowest status victims (black or Asian victims who were single, with a prior criminal record, and no college degree).

In a previous study of the same 504 cases, Phillips found that defendants who are convicted of capital murder were more likely to get the death penalty in Harris County when defended by court-appointed counsel, compared with those who hired private lawyers to represent them for the entire case.

(S. Phillips, "Status Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment," 43 Law & Society Review 807 (2009); see P. O'Hare, "Study figures odds of killer getting death: Victim's race and marital status seem to play role in cases," Houston Chronicle, March 5, 2010).  See also Arbitrariness and Race.