A new study of the Texas death penalty, released as the state was conducting its 400th modern-era execution in a case involving a white victim, has documented overwhelming racial disparities in the Lone Star state’s capital punishment system.

Reviewing more than 15,000 capital murder convictions in Texas from 1973 to 2018, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Dean Jelani Jefferson Exum (pictured left) and University of Cincinnati School of Public and International Affairs Associate Professor Dr. David Niven (pictured right), found “a stark disparity” in whose lives mattered in Texas capital cases based on the race of the victim and the race of the defendant. “The Texas death penalty data shows how pervasive race is in death penalty outcomes,” Exum and Niven write in their Summer 2022 article, Where Black Lives Matter Less: Understanding the Impact of Black Victims on Sentencing Outcomes in Texas Capital Murder Cases from 1973 to 2018, in the St. Louis University Law Journal.

“Race,” they say, “is everywhere.”

Exum and Niven found that a death sentence was more than three times as likely to be imposed in Texas in a case involving a white victim than in a case with a Black victim. While 5.2% of Texas 15,394 capital murder convictions resulted in death sentences, death was imposed in 8.5% of white-victim cases compared with 2.7% of Black-victim cases.

“Taken in sum,” they wrote, “we see: a race of victim disparity in death sentences overall; a race of victim disparity in death sentences sorted by race of defendant; a race of victim disparity in death sentences sorted by weapon used; a race of victim disparity in cases with a single victim; and a race of victim disparity in multiple victim cases. … In every single comparison, the racial disparity was statistically significant. In every single comparison, harsher punishment was associated with white victims than with African American victims, who clearly mattered less.”

Exum and Niven conducted an analysis to determine the probability that the persistently large race-of-victim disparities they found could have been the product of a race neutral process. That possibility, they discovered, was astronomically remote — one in 180 septen-decillion (numerically represented as 180,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). By comparison, they noted, “the odds of winning the Powerball lottery … are quite literally trillions of times better than seeing this disparity in race of victim sentencing in Texas happen by chance.”

The white-victim preference in capital convictions “is so prevalent that we even see a race of victim disparity in non-death sentence cases,” they wrote. In the 11,139 capital murder cases in Texas in which a death sentence was not imposed, those convicted of killing white victims were sentenced to an average of 51.3 years in prison, nearly four years longer than the average of 47.5 years imposed on those convicted of killing Black victims.

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis found similar race-of-victim disparities in Texas execution data. On August 17, 2022, Texas executed Kosoul Chanthakoummane, the state’s 575th execution since the 1970s. He was the 400th person to be put to death for a homicide involving at least one white victim. 69.6% of all Texas executions over that time have involved at least one white victim, and 67.3% (387 executions) involved only white victims. During that same time, 79 people were put to death in Texas for homicides that involved any Black victims (13.7% of executions). 74 of those cases involved only Black victims (12.9%). That meant that a Texas execution was 5.1 times more likely to have involved at least one white victim than any Black victim and 5.2 times more likely to have involved only white victims than only Black victims.

The Texas executions also demonstrated huge race of defendant disparities. While 238 of the 254 white death-sentenced prisoners executed in Texas (93.7%) have been put to death for homicides involving white victims, only 70 of the 207 Black death-sentenced prisoners executed in the state (33.8%) were put to death for murders involving Black victims. 114 Black death-sentenced prisoners were executed for homicides of white victims (55.1%), 110 of which (53.1%) involved only white victims. Just 2.4% of the white executed prisoners (6 cases) were put to death for killing any Black victims.

“As the Texas example provides, the devaluing effect of Blackness is apparent,” Exum and Niven write. “This is not simply a failure to recognize the value of Black lives—as the Black Lives Matter movement exposes—but a reflection of the societal view that Blackness actually reduces the value and importance of all things—from property to community spaces to ultimate humanity. In life, Black people are vastly under-protected by the law, and the same is true for Black people even in a system designed to exact retribution for death.”

“History shows us that Blackness has been devalued since the founding of America,” Exum and Niven note. “The truth, of course, is that Black victims matter as much as any, even if the legal system and society have not recognized their value.”

Their proposed response: “We must make the radical choice to uproot systems, like the death penalty, that allow the anti-Black biases in our national consciousness to not only thrive, but to be just. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a system where Black lives matter less.”

“When we accept the fact that the death penalty reveals that Black deaths do not matter,” they conclude, “then it becomes apparent that there is not an antiracist fix for the death penalty other than its abolition.”