This New York Times article, headlined “A Vast Racial Gap in Death Penalty Cases, New Study Finds,” highlights new research on the intersection of race and the death penalty. Here are excerpts from the press piece with a few of the original links to the original research:
Black lives do not matter nearly as much as white ones when it comes to the death penalty, a new study has found. Building on data at the heart of a landmark 1987 Supreme Court decision, the study concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims.
There is little chance that the new findings would alter the current Supreme Court’s support for the death penalty. Its conservative majority has expressed impatience with efforts to block executions, and last month it issued a pair of 5-to-4 rulings in the middle of the night that allowed federal executions to resume after a 17-year hiatus.
But the court came within one vote of addressing racial bias in the administration of the death penalty in the 1987 decision, McCleskey v. Kemp. By a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled that even solid statistical evidence of race discrimination in the capital justice system did not offend the Constitution….
The McCleskey decision considered a study conducted by David C. Baldus, a law professor who died in 2011. It looked at death sentences rather than executions, and it made two basic points. The first was that the race of the defendant does not predict the likelihood of a death sentence. The second was that the race of the victim does. Killers of white people were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as killers of Black people, Professor Baldus found.
The new study, published in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, examined not only death sentences but also whether defendants sentenced to death were eventually executed. “The problematic sentencing disparity discovered by Baldus is exacerbated at the execution stage,” wrote the study’s authors, Scott Phillips and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver. Professor Baldus’s study examined more than 2,000 murders in Georgia from 1973 to 1979, controlling for some 230 variables.
Though some have argued that Professor Baldus did not consider every possible variable, few question his bottom-line conclusion, and other studies have confirmed it. In 1990, the General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office, reviewed 28 studies and determined that 23 of them found that the race of the victim influenced “the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving a death sentence.” “This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods and analytic techniques,” the report said. A 2014 update came to a similar conclusion.
One factor Professor Baldus could not analyze, given the decades that often pass between sentencings and executions, was whether the race of the victim correlated to the likelihood of the defendant being put to death. The new study, the product of exhaustive research, supplied the missing information. It found that 22 of the 972 defendants convicted of killing a white victim were executed, as compared with two of the 1,503 defendants convicted of killing a Black victim.
The new study also confirmed just how rare executions are. Of the 127 men sentenced to death in the Baldus study, 95 left death row thanks to judicial action or executive clemency; five died of natural causes; one was executed in another state; one escaped (and was soon beaten to death in a bar fight); and one remains on death row.
A more general and less granular 2017 study compared two sets of nationwide data: homicides from 1975 to 2005 and executions from 1976 to 2015. Its conclusions were similarly striking. About half of the victims were white, that study found, but three-quarters of defendants put to death had killed a white person. About 46 percent of the victims were Black, but only 15 percent of defendants who were executed had killed a Black person.
Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra, said courts and lawmakers had failed to confront the question of racial bias in the administration of capital punishment. “The continuing adherence of the Supreme Court to McCleskey is a continuing statement that Black lives do not matter,” he said. “The continuing failure of Congress and the state legislatures to remedy the situation is a continuing admission that the states are unable to run racially unbiased death penalty systems.”
I always find in-depth exploration of the Baldus study and McClesky so interesting and important, in part because David Baldus discovered that even in Georgia in the 1970s, it appears that the race of the defendant had relatively little or no impact on who was ultimately sentenced to death. That strikes me as itself a remarkable and encouraging finding, even though he reached the corresponding and discouraging finding that the race of the victim did have a huge impact on who was ultimately sentenced to death. But, as Prof Randall Kennedy astutely explored in this terrific article published right after the McClesky decision, one logical response to these kinds of race-of-the-victim disparity studies is to call for far more executions of persons who kill black victims to signal in this context that black lives matter as much as white ones.
According to my quick searching using the DPIC database, it appears that only 3 of 25 persons executed in the United States in 2018 had black victims, whereas in 2019 there were 6 of 22 persons executed in the US who had black victims. Should we be “celebrating” that black lives mattered more than twice as much in the operation of the US machinery of death in 2019 than in 2018? Circa 2020 when the feds are now poised to be the most active of executioners, should we all be urging Attorney General Barr, as he continues adding names to the list of condemned to now be marched into the federal death chamber, to be working harder to pick from federal death row those killers with black victims?
My point here is just to recall in this context Prof Kennedy’s important insight that the most ready response to these kinds of race-of-the-victim disparities may be to encourage more (capital) punishment, especially if we end up talking about these disparities in terms of certain victims not getting equal justice. I would also add that I wish there was a lot more of this kind of race-of-the-victim sentencing disparity conducted concerning non-capital crimes. I suspect and fear that there may be even more pernicious individual and community harms resulting from persistently unequal sentencing for those who commit sexual or property offenses with black victims.