Racism and the Death Penalty

A new Santa Clara Law Review study finds that in California murder trials, a victim’s race significantly affected the likelihood of a defendant receiving the death penalty. Specifically, those who murdered whites were four times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who killed Hispanics, and three times more likely than those who killed blacks. The study’s co-author concluded, “To put it bluntly, there’s apparently different values being placed on victims from different racial and ethnic groups.”

While the Santa Clara study dealt only with California, the problem is a national one. Studies in Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey have made similar conclusions about the role of the victim’s race in murder trials:

Ohio: “Offenders facing a death penalty charge for killing a white person were twice as likely to go to death row as if they had killed a black victim. Death sentences were handed down in 18 percent of cases in which the victims were white, compared with 8.5 percent of cases when victims were black.” [AP, 5/7/05]

Illinois: “When certain facts in aggravation, such as previous criminal history of the defendant, are controlled for, there is evidence that the race of the victim influences who is sentenced to death. In other words, defendants of any race who murder white victims were more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murdered black victims.” [Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment, 2002]

New Jersey: “Killers are more likely to be sentenced to death in New Jersey if their victims were white rather than black, a new judicial report has found. ‘There is unsettling statistical evidence indicating that cases involving killers of white victims are more likely to progress to a [death] penalty phase than cases involving killers of African-American victims,’ the report found.” [The Bergen County, NJ Record, 8/14/01]

It’s high time that we address this problem seriously.