National Coalition to

Abolish the Death Penalty

90 million Americans believe the death penalty is wrong. We mobilize them to end the death penalty state by state.
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Race of the Victim

Time and again, studies have shown that the death penalty is sought more often against people who kill white victims than African American or Hispanic victims.

There is no longer any dispute over whether or not discriminatory sentencing in capital cases based on the race of the victim exists.  In 1990 the Government Accountability Office conducted a reveiw of over 25 studies of capital sentencing procedures, and they concluded that 82% of the studies found that the victim's race influenced the likelihood of the defendant being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty.  They also concluded that the synthesis of the studies showed a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in capital sentencing. While there are comparable numbers of black and white murder victims in the United States, 77% of the people executed since 1976 were convicted of killing white victims and only 13% were convicted of killing black victims. 

However, just a few years prior to the government's findings on racial bias in sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp case that even solid statistical evidence of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty did not offend the Constitution.

In a 1995 speech reflecting on the Supreme Court decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, researcher, David Baldus concluded, “Perhaps most important, in my estimation,” he said, “is that race-of-victim discrimination does not raise the same sort of moral concerns as race-of-defendant discrimination — even though, from a constitutional standpoint, discrimination on the basis of any racial aspect of the case is illegitimate.”

Contemporary Studies on Race of the Victim and the Death Penalty

Continued Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment: The Rosenthal Era

Scott Phillips
50 Houston Law Review 131 (2012)

In this 2012 study criminologist Scott Phillips examines whether or not racial disparities continue during the administration of Harris County District Attorney, Charles Rosenthal who was in office from January 1, 2001 to February 15, 2008. Previous research suggested that the impact of defendant race disappeared.  But this study shows that the impact of victim race continued: death sentences were imposed on behalf of white victims at 2.5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race, and death sentences were imposed on behalf of white female victims at 5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race and gender.

The paper contemplates a key moral question: Should the state of Texas be allowed to execute inmates who were sentenced to death in Harris County during the Rosenthal administration?

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The Delaware Death Penalty: An Empirical Study

Sheri Lynn Johnson, John H. Blume, Theodore Eisenberg, Valerie P. Haynes, Martin T. Wells
Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-24
March 11, 2012

This article was published by a group of law professors at Cornell Law School in conjunction with a symposium honoring the late David Baldus, a scholar who tracked racial bias in the death penalty for over a quarter of a century. The authors studied the operation of Delaware’s death penalty in the modern era of capital punishment. Their conclusions consisted of three main observations. First, they found a dramatic disparity of death sentencing rates by race, one substantially more pronounced than in other jurisdictions. Second, Delaware had a relatively low reversal rate in capital cases—44%, and third, Delaware had a relatively high death sentencing rate compared to other states.  The authors attributed these latter two observations to the state’s use of judge sentencing rather than jury sentencing.

Among other startling findings indicating racial disparity in sentencing, the authors found that even when compared to southern states, Delaware's rate of death sentencing for black defendants with white victims was unusually high; it was 75 percent higher than the next highest states, Georgia and Nevada, more than twice as high as that of South Carolina or Virginia, and more than three times as high as that of its near neighbors, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  

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Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina: 1980-2007

Michael L. Radelet and Glenn L. Pierce
North Carolina Law Review 89 (2011): 2119-60

A 2011 study in North Carolina found that the odds of a defendant receiving a death sentence were three times higher if the person was convicted of killing a white person than if he had killed a black person. The study, conducted by Professors Michael Radelet and Glenn Pierce, examined 15,281 homicides in the state between 1980 and 2007, which resulted in 368 death sentences. Even after accounting for additional factors, such as multiple victims or homicides accompanied with a rape, robbery or other felony, researchers found that race was still a significant predictor of who was sentenced to death.  The study which was published in the North Carolina Law Review was the first examination of the North Carolina death penalty since the state passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009. The law, which was repealed during the 2013 legislative session, allowed murder suspects and death row inmates to present statistical evidence of racial bias to ensure that the defendant’s or victim’s race does not play a key role in the defendant’s sentence.  Despite the substantial evidence of racial bias that came forward under the Racial Justice Act, the state’s  legislature repealed the law, raising numerous questions for over 150 pending cases where there is documented evidence of racial bias.

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The Death Penalty in Florida

Christopher Slobogin
Elon Law Review Vol. 1:17 (2009)

This evaluation was based on a study by an assessment team sponsored by the American Bar Association. Florida is among the states that lead in numbers of executions carried out, but it also has the most death row exonerations of any state in the country.  Florida was chosen by the ABA to be one of eight death penalty states reviewed under its Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project. The purpose of this project was to allow states to identity and eliminate flaws in their death penalty system.

The Florida Assessment Team was led by Prof. Slobogin and was instructed to investigate the following aspects of death penalty administration: "police investigation procedures; the use of DNA evidence; crime laboratories and medical examiners; prosecutorial discretion; defense services; jury instructions; the judicial role; the direct appeal process; state post-conviction and federal habeas proceedings; clemency proceedings; the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities; and the treatment of people with mental illness and mental retardation."

According to the law review article, "The description of Florida law and practice … raises grave doubts about whether all of the people who are currently on death row in Florida (not to mention the twenty-two who have been released from it) deserve it. Problems associated with police investigative techniques, scientific testing procedures, prosecutorial decisions during charging and trial, defense attorney qualifications and compensation, judicial and jury decision-making, jury instructions, the clemency process, and racial and disability bias can undermine the reliability of convictions in capital cases, the death sentences handed down in such cases, or both."

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Racial Bias