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Facts about capital punishment

Part 3: Racial bias

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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:

bullet From 1995 to 2000, federal prosecutors sought the death penalty for 183 defendants; 74% were minorities.
bullet 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." 4

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:

"They are 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 it:

" 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 execution:

''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." 4

Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology at Stanford concluded:

"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 accordingly."

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:

bullet 57.5% of defendants with "stereotypically black" features -- broad noses, thick lips, dark skin and hair -- were sentenced to death.
bullet 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:

bullet 45% of the "stereotypically black" defendants were sentenced to death.
bullet 46.6% of the "stereotypically black" defendants were sentenced to death.

However, "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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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Naftali Bendavid, "U.S. study rebuts death penalty bias: Critics: Report on race issue flawed," Chicago Tribune, 2001-JUN-7.
  2. "Further information on Death penalty / Legal concern, Juan Raul Garza, Latino, aged 44," Amnesty International, 2001-JUN-20, at:
  3. Lisa Trei, " 'Black' features can sway in favor of death penalty, according to study," Stanford Report, 2006-MAY-03, at:
  4. Jennifer Eberhardt et al., "Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes" Psychological Science journal, 2006-MAY.
  5. Professor Eberhardt's web page contains a description of the study, and pictures of more and less seterotypically black faces at:

Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death Penalty > this essay

Copyright 1995 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2006-
Author: Bruce A Robinson
Hyperlinks checked: 2006-JAN-29

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