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Kristie R. Blevins and Kevin I. Minor

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Many studies have explored relationships between application of the modern death penalty and race of the defendant, victim, and/or the combined races of defendants and victims
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found that defendants who had murdered a white victim received a death sentence twice as often as offenders who had killed a minority victim when controlling for other demographics of the defen- dant and victim and characteristics of the crime. When looking at the races of both the defendant and the victim, he found that minority defendants convicted of killing a white individual received the death penalty more than three times the rate of minorities who murder minority victims. Also, he found that whites who killed minorities were sentenced to death half as often as whites who killed other whites.

Many studies have explored relationships between application of the modern death penalty and race of the defendant, victim, and/or the combined races of defendants and victims. The important point is that the fi ndings from most of these studies are consistent, regardless of details such as jurisdic- tion, number of years studied, research methodology, control variables, and data analysis techniques. Although there have been a few exceptions with inconsistent or null fi ndings based on race (Marquart et al., 1994; Klein & Rolph, 1991), the overall consensus is that disparities based on race of the victims are typically present in death penalty cases. While the impact of race of defendant is much less con- sistent (Phillips, 2012), there is almost always evidence of disparities based solely on race of the victims or the racial combinations of the defendants and victims (Baldus & Woodworth, 2003b; Bowers, Steiner, & Sandys, 2001; Robinson, 2008; U.S. General Accounting Offi ce, 1990; Williams & Holcomb, 2001).

These consistencies are summarized nicely in reviews of studies. The U.S. General Accounting Offi ce (1990) conducted an evaluation of 28 prior studies concerning any relation of race of the defendant and victim to capital sentencing. After examining the quality of the studies and rating about 60% of them to be medium or high quality, the authors concluded that the race of the victim was infl uential throughout the entire capital process. They found that the majority of the studies pro- vided some evidence that death sentences were more likely to be given to black offenders and strong evidence that death sentences were signifi cantly more likely to be given in cases with a white victim. Taken together, these studies provided strong support for the hypothesis that the race of the victim was indicative of receiving a death sentence, while the relationship of the race of the defendant and likelihood of receiving a sentence of death was not as clear. These fi ndings were consistent across the several states studied and the different methodologies used. A more recent review of 18 studies pub- lished from 1990 to 2003 produced similar results: defendants with white victims were signifi cantly more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants with victims of other races (Baldus & Wood- worth, 2003b). These reviews, as well as the vast body of individual studies, have helped to confi rm that there are disparities based on race of victims and/or the combination of victim/defendant races in more than half of the 31 states with the death penalty, as well as the U.S. military system. In each of these jurisdictions, capital punishment was signifi cantly more likely to be the result in cases with white victims as compared to cases with victims of other races (Baldus et al., 1990, 1994; Baldus, Grosso, Woodworth, & Newell, 2012; Baldus, Woodworth, & Grosso, 2002; Beckett & Evans, 2016; Bowers & Pierce, 1980; Fleury-Steiner, Dunn, & Fleury-Steiner, 2009; Gross & Mauro, 1989; Goldfarb, 2016; Heilbrun et al., 1989; Hindson, Potter, & Radelet, 2006; Holcomb, Williams, & Demuth, 2004; Jennings, Richards, Smith, Bjerregaard, & Fogel, 2014; Keil & Vito, 1989, 1990, 1995; Paternoster, 1983; Paternoster & Brame, 2003, 2008; Pasternoster, Brame, Bacon, & Ditchfi eld, 2004; Phillips, 2012; Pierce & Radelet, 2002, 2005; Radelet & Pierce, 1991, 2011a, 2011b; Smith, 1987; Sorensen & Wallace, 1995; Thomson, 1997; Unah, 2011; Williams & Holcomb, 2001).

Why Are There Racial Disparities in the Capital Punishment System?

An abundance of empirical studies have established that there are racial disparities, at least based on race of victims, within America’s death penalty process. These fi ndings inevitably lead to the question of why such disparities exist. Is it outright racial discrimination, or is the relationship being driven by other factors such as motivation for the crime, geographic region, social class (and its relationship

 

 

31 Race and the Death Penalty

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