A study of more than 400 death-eligible murder cases in St. Louis County, Missouri over a 27-year period has found significant racial disparities in the county’s administration of the death penalty based upon the race of the victim.

An expert report by University of North Carolina political scientist Frank R. Baumgartner released on September 20, 2022 found that the likelihood that a death sentence would be imposed in St. Louis County was 3.5 times greater if the victim was white, as compared to cases in which the victim was Black. The race-of-victim effects “persist[ed] after the introduction of controls for aggravating and mitigating factors,” Baumgartner wrote, “meaning that these disparities cannot be explained by legitimate case characteristics.”

Baumgartner’s study was prepared in connection with defense efforts to obtain clemency for death-row prisoner Kevin Johnson, a teen offender sentenced to death for killing a white police officer. It covered the years 1991–2018, tracking the period in which former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch was in office. Voters ousted McCullough in 2018 after he failed to indict a white police officer for the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, which incited the Ferguson protests.

Baumgartner found statistically significant evidence that white lives mattered more to county prosecutors than Black lives during McCullough’s tenure, with the greatest race-of-victim disparities in the treatment of cases occurring at the stages of the case in which prosecutors had the greatest discretion. While more than twice as many of the 408 death-eligible cases that came before county prosecutors during the study period involved Black victims (68.4% to 31.6%), nearly two-thirds of the 29 cases that resulted in death sentences in the county involved victims who were white (62.1% to 37.9%). (Click to enlarge graphic.) On average, 7.1% of death-eligible cases resulted in death sentences. However, death was imposed in 14.1% of white-victim cases, as compared to 4.0% of cases in which the victim was Black.

The “most dramatic reductions” in the percentages of cases involving Black victims, Baumgartner wrote, occurred at stages in the exclusive control of law enforcement — charging the case as a first-degree murer and issuing a death-notice — where “white-victim cases [were] differentially selected for capital prosecution.” The percentage of cases involving Black victims dropped from 68.4% to 62.0% in charging decisions, then fell an additional 15.7 percentage points to 46.3% among the death-noticed cases. White-victim cases rose from less than one-third (31.6%) to more than a half (53.7%) during those stages. The representation of white-victim cases rose by another 8 percentage points, to 62.1%, in jury sentencing decisions.

Baumgartner’s study also found that the statistical overrepresentation of death sentences in white-victim cases was unrelated to legitimate case characteristics: the race of victim mattered.

Three percent of cases involving a single Black victim resulted in a death, whereas death sentences were imposed in 14% of cases with a single victim white victim. Using a multivariate regression analysis that considered the impact of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, he found that the presence of a white victim more than tripled the odds that a death sentence was imposed. Having a white victim had the same aggravating weight as a defendant having committed a prior homicide or violent assault.

A July 2015 study by Baumgartner found that St. Louis County’s death-penalty practices also contributed significantly to stark racial and geographic disparities in the application of capital punishment across Missouri. That study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than if he or she were convicted elsewhere in the state and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in neighboring St. Louis City. Courts also have repeatedly found that the county’s prosecutors discriminatorily struck African Americans from jury service because of their race.

As part of his reform agenda, McCullough successor, Wesley Bell, created a Conviction and Incident Review Unit. While that unit was in the process of engaging a special prosecutor to investigate Johnson’s claim that his death sentence was a product of racial bias, the Missouri Attorney General’s office filed a motion in the Missouri Supreme Court seeking a death warrant for Johnson. On August 24, 2022, the court granted that motion, setting Johnson’s execution for November 29, 2022.

At a press conference the next day, Rebecca Woodman, one of Johnson’s lawyers, called for a halt to the execution, saying “[i]t would be unconscionable for Kevin to be executed without a thorough investigation into the claims that are pending.”


Frank R. Baumgartner, Homicides, Capital Prosecutions, and Death Sentences in St. Louis County, Missouri, 1991 – 2018, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, September 20, 2022; Monica Obradovic, Missouri man com­mit­ted a hor­rif­ic crime. But exe­cu­tion is not jus­tice — it’s cru­el­ty, Kansas City Star, September 122022

Watch the NAACP and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty news con­fer­ence releas­ing the Baumgartner report.