Race and capital punishment in the United States

The relationship between race and capital punishment in the United States has been studied extensively. As of 2014, 42% of those on death row in the United States were black.[1] However, this is an under-representation relative to the proportion of convicted murderers; 52.5% of all homicide offenders between 1980 and 2008 were black.[2] Since 2002, there have been 12 executions of white defendants where the murder victim was black, however, there have been 178 executed defendants who were black with a white murder victim.[3] According to the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports, between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, the rate of homicides doubled. For every 100,000 U.S residents, the homicide victim rate elevated from 4.6 to 9.7. The homicide victim rate per 100,000 U.S. residents has heightened at 10.2 in 1980 and dropped in 1984 to 7.9. In 1992, homicide victim rate decreased drastically again from 9.3 to 4.8 in 2010. Since 1999 the rate of homicide victims have retained a steady range. The number of homicides peaked at 24,703 in 1991 and then dwindled to 15,522 in 1999. The rate of homicides consistently elevated between the years of 1950 and 1970. Since 1999 the rate of homicide victims have retained a steady range. In 1999, the rates were at 15,552 and slowly increased to 17,030. In comparison to the 24,703 disclosed in 1991, these numbers have gradually declined and become more consistent. [4]

Baldus studiesEdit

In 1983, David Baldus co-authored a study that found that capital punishment in Georgia since the decision in Furman v. Georgia was handed down in 1972 had been applied unevenly across race. Specifically, his and his colleagues' study found that only 15 out of 246 murder cases (6%) where the victim was black resulted in a death sentence, as compared with 85 out of 348 (24%) of such cases when the victim was white.[1][5] This study led to Warren McCleskey's death sentence being challenged due to allegations that it was racially biased. Those allegations resulted in the Supreme Court's 1987 decision in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence of bias in the criminal justice system is insufficient to overturn an individual's sentence.[1] In 1998, Baldus published another study which concluded that black defendants in certain types of murder cases in Philadelphia were almost four times as likely to be sentenced to death than were their white counterparts.[6]


In 1981, Gary Kleck published a literature review that declared that all states, except the Southern United States, found that African Americans were less likely than white Americans to be sentenced to death or executed. The review also found that cases with black victims were less likely than those with white victims to result in the death sentence, possibly as a result of the devaluing of black crime victims.[7]


A 1981 study by Michael Radelet found that murder cases involving white victims were more likely to result in a death sentence than were those involving black victims, mainly because those accused of murdering whites were more likely to be indicted for first-degree murder. The same study found that after controlling for the race of the victim, there was no clear evidence that the race of the defendant predicted how likely they were to receive a death sentence.[8]

Dwayne SmithEdit

A 1987 study by M. Dwayne Smith of Tulane University found a racial bias in capital punishment cases in Louisiana, but only with regard to the race of the victim, not the offender.[9]


A 1988 study by Sheldon Ekland-Olson found that in the first decade after Furman, criminal cases in Texas involving white victims were more likely to result in a death sentence than those involving either black or Hispanic victims.[10]

Government Accountability OfficeEdit

A 1990 Government Accountability Office analysis of 28 studies, in 82% of these studies, found that murder cases with white victims were more likely than those with black victims to result in a death sentence. The report described this relationship as "remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods, and analytic techniques."[11]

Sorensen & WallaceEdit

A 1995 study by Jonathan Sorensen and Donald H. Wallace found evidence of a racial bias in capital punishment in Missouri, mainly in regards to the race of the victim. The study found that cases with white victims were more likely to result in death sentences, and that cases with black victims were less likely to result in such sentences. The study also reported that these disparities were largest when "prosecutors and jurors are freed from the seriousness of the cases to consider other factors."[12] A 1999 study by the same authors found that murder cases with black defendants and white victims were more likely than those with any other combination of defendant and victim races to "result in first-degree murder charges, to be served notice of aggravating circumstances, and to proceed to capital trial."[13]


A 2006 study led by Jennifer Eberhardt found that even after numerous other factors were controlled for, defendants who looked more stereotypically black in death penalty cases with white victims were more likely to be sentenced to death. People tend to see Black physical traits as directly related to criminality. The synthesis supported a strong race of victim influence.[14]

Alesina and La FerraraEdit

A 2014 study by Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara found evidence of racial bias in capital sentencing in that error rates tended to be higher in capital cases involving minority defendants and white victims. However, this pattern was only seen in Southern states.[15]

Butler et alEdit

A study by Butler et al published in 2018 failed to replicate the findings of earlier studies that had concluded that white Americans are more likely to support the death penalty if informed that it is largely applied to black American; according to the authors, their findings "may result from changes since 2001 in the effects of racial stimuli on white attitudes about the death penalty or their willingness to express those attitudes in a survey context."[16]


  1. ^ a b c Ford, Matt (23 June 2014). "Racism and the Execution Chamber". The Atlantic. Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  2. ^ "Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008" (PDF). p. 3.
  3. ^ "Race and the Death Penalty". ACLU. Retrieved 17 February 2021.
  4. ^ "Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-07-18.
  5. ^ Baldus, David; et al. (Fall 1983). "Comparative Review of Death Sentences: An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience". Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. 74 (3): 661–753. doi:10.2307/1143133. JSTOR 1143133.
  6. ^ Baldus, David; et al. (1998). "Racial Discrimination and the Death Penalty in the Post-Furman Era: An Empirical and Legal Overview with Recent Findings from Philadelphia". Cornell Law Review. 83 (6): 1638–1770. Lay summaryLos Angeles Times (June 4, 1998).
  7. ^ Kleck, Gary (December 1981). "Racial Discrimination in Criminal Sentencing: A Critical Evaluation of the Evidence with Additional Evidence on the Death Penalty". American Sociological Review. 46 (6): 783–805. doi:10.2307/2095079. JSTOR 2095079.
  8. ^ Radelet, Michael (December 1981). "Racial Characteristics and the Imposition of the Death Penalty". American Sociological Review. 46 (6): 918–927. doi:10.2307/2095088. JSTOR 2095088.
  9. ^ Smith, M.Dwayne (January 1987). "Patterns of discrimination in assessments of the death penalty: The case of Louisiana". Journal of Criminal Justice. 15 (4): 279–286. doi:10.1016/0047-2352(87)90015-8.
  10. ^ Ekland-Olson, Sheldon (December 1988). "Structured Discretion, Racial Bias, and the Death Penalty: The First Decade after "Furman" in Texas". Social Science Quarterly. 69 (4): 853–873.
  11. ^ "Death Penalty Sentencing: Research Indicates Pattern of Racial Disparities" (PDF). Government Accountability Office. 26 February 1990. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  12. ^ Sorensen, Jonathan R.; Wallace, Donald H. (Winter 1995). "Capital punishment in Missouri: Examining the issue of racial disparity". Behavioral Sciences & the Law. 13 (1): 61–80. doi:10.1002/bsl.2370130105.
  13. ^ Sorensen, Jon; Wallace, Donald H. (September 1999). "Prosecutorial discretion in seeking death: An analysis of racial disparity in the pretrial stages of case processing in a midwestern county". Justice Quarterly. 16 (3): 559–578. doi:10.1080/07418829900094261.
  14. ^ Eberhardt, J. L.; Davies, P. G.; Purdie-Vaughns, V. J.; Johnson, S. L. (1 May 2006). "Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes". Psychological Science. 17 (5): 383–386. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01716.x. PMID 16683924.
  15. ^ Alesina, Alberto; La Ferrara, Eliana (November 2014). "A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing". American Economic Review. 104 (11): 3397–3433. CiteSeerX doi:10.1257/aer.104.11.3397.
  16. ^ Butler, Ryden; Nyhan, Brendan; Montgomery, Jacob M.; Torres, Michelle (2018-01-25). "Revisiting white backlash: Does race affect death penalty opinion?:". Research & Politics. doi:10.1177/2053168017751250.

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