Facts about capital punishment
Part 3: Racial bias
Racial / ethnic bias:
Many critics of the death penalty,
and of its application in the U.S., point out that racial minorities are targeted with
the death penalty in large numbers:
From 1995 to 2000, federal prosecutors
sought the death penalty for 183 defendants; 74% were minorities.
||Of the 21 people on federal death row as of 2001-JUN, 81% were black or Hispanic.
Supporters of capital punishment point out that this
preponderance of minorities is not evidence of systemic
racism. It simply reflects the different rates at which
various races in America currently commit murder.
In 1990, the General Accounting Office conducted a meta study of a
variety of surveys of race and the death penalty. They found that many
studies had already established that murderers of white victims are more
likely than murderers of black victims to be sentenced to death. They
described this race-of-victim effect as "remarkably consistent across
data sets, states, data collection methods and analytic techniques."
U.S. Justice Department 2000 & 2001 reports:
In 2000-SEP, the Justice Department issued a preliminary
report on racial bias in the prosecution of capital cases. It
confirmed that a large
majority of defendants
were minorities. Attorney General Janet Reno said that she was
"disturbed" by the report. She ordered a more
comprehensive study. At his confirmation hearings, the new
Attorney General, John Ashcroft, said that the suggestion of
racism "troubles me deeply."
A more thorough report
was issued on 2001-JUN-7. Included were 293 capital defendants
who had not been included in the earlier report, mainly
because they had quickly plea-bargained their cases. The
authors of the report declared that there is no evidence of
racial or ethnic bias in the way the U.S. government applies
the death penalty. the report said that "The offenses that
may lead to homicides and capital charges are not evenly
distributed across all population groups." Referring
to federal prosecutors, the report said that:
experienced legal professionals whose values and practices are
shaped by general societal attitudes and the specific values
of the legal system that strongly condemn discrimination based
on race or ethnicity."
According to the Chicago Tribune:
"That conclusion was greeted with immediate skepticism by
capital punishment opponents, who said the report was flawed
and far too limited to merit such a sweeping finding...Capital punishment opponents also pointed to a figure that
the Justice Department report played down: Prosecutors have
reached plea agreements with about half of the white capital
defendants, allowing them to avoid the death penalty. But they
have reached such deals with only about one-quarter of
minority defendants. "
Elisabeth Semel, director of the American Bar
Association's Death Penalty Representation Project,
blasted the report as superficial and designed to pave the way
for the execution of Juan Garza
and other minority inmates. Garza,
a Latino, was executed on 2001-JUN-19. 1
Commenting on the Garza case, Amnesty International stated that
"...is deeply saddened that the US Government has allowed the
execution of a man whose case raised the very issues that the study that
has now been announced is to examine. Once again US authorities have
shown themselves to be contemptuous of international standards, and
willing to sacrifice fairness for finality in their relentless pursuit
of judicial killing.
The New York Times stated in an editorial at the time of Garza's
''The fact that the government refused to postpone this execution
until it had completed a long-overdue review of racial and geographic
disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty is
indefensible. The Justice Department pledged last week to complete the
study, but neither Attorney General John Ashcroft nor the president
seems willing to delay Mr. Garza's execution. Instead they appear
content to execute a defendant under a system whose fairness they are
still reviewing.......[the death penalty] increasingly makes the United
States a pariah among the world's democracies.''
Stanford University 2006 report:
Stanford University researchers studied the relationship between Black
defendants physical appearance and the likelihood that they will be given
the death penalty if convicted of murder. They compared instances where a male African
American was convicted of murdering a white or black victim.
They found that:
"Male murderers with stereotypically 'black-looking' features are
more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than lighter-skinned
African American defendants found guilty of killing a white person,
Stanford researchers have found. The relationship between physical
appearance and the death sentence disappears, however, when both
murderers and their victims are black."
Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology at Stanford
"Race clearly matters in criminal justice in ways in which people may
or may not be consciously aware. When black defendants are accused of
killing whites, perhaps jurors use the degree to which these defendants
appear stereotypically black as a proxy for criminality, and then punish
The study analyzed over 600 cases from the Philadelphia, PA area between
1979 and 1999. Of these, 44 cases involved black male defendants convicted
of murdering white victims. 308 cases involved black defendants and black
victims. Fifty one mostly white and Asian undergraduates at Stanford were
recruited to rate the faces of the defendants on a scale of 1 to 11 for
stereotypical racial features. "The study controlled for the defendant's
attractiveness and other nonracial factors known to influence sentencing,
such as the severity of the murder, and the defendant's and the victim's
socioeconomic status." The researchers found that:
Among black defendants found guilty of murdering a white person:
57.5% of defendants with "stereotypically black" features --
broad noses, thick lips, dark skin and hair -- were sentenced to death.
||24.4% percent of men who were rated as less
stereotypically black were given the death sentence.
Among black defendants found guilty of murdering a black person:
45% of the "stereotypically black" defendants were sentenced to death.
46.6% of the "stereotypically black" defendants were sentenced to death.
"black-on-black" capital cases where both the perpetrator and
victim was black, Eberhardt observed: "There was no relationship between
defendants' physical appearances and the sentences they received."
The article in the Stanford Report concluded:
"According to Eberhardt, the lower rates of death penalty convictions may
be attributed to the fact that jurors regard black-on-white crime as
interracial conflict compared to black-on-black crime, which could be viewed
as interpersonal. 'These research findings augment and complicate the
current body of evidence regarding the role of race in capital sentencing,'
the researchers write. 'Our findings suggest that in cases involving a black
defendant and a white victim?cases in which the likelihood of the death
penalty is already high?jurors are influenced not simply by the knowledge
that the defendant is black, but also by the extent to which the defendant
appears stereotypically black. The present research demonstrates that in
actual sentencing decisions, jurors may treat these traits as powerful cues
to deathworthiness'." 4
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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Naftali Bendavid, "U.S. study rebuts death penalty bias: Critics: Report on race issue flawed,"
Chicago Tribune, 2001-JUN-7.
"Further information on Death penalty / Legal concern, Juan Raul
Garza, Latino, aged 44," Amnesty International, 2001-JUN-20, at:
- Lisa Trei, " 'Black' features can sway in
favor of death penalty, according to study," Stanford Report,
Jennifer Eberhardt et al., "Looking Deathworthy: Perceived
Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing
Outcomes" Psychological Science journal, 2006-MAY.
Professor Eberhardt's web page contains a description of the study,
and pictures of more and less seterotypically black faces at:
Copyright © 1995 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2006-MAY-15
Author: Bruce A Robinson
Hyperlinks checked: 2006-JAN-29