Maryland Race Study Author Finds Death Penalty Practices "Disturbing"

Professor Ray Paternoster of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland was the senior author of a 2003 state-commissioned review of the role that race and geography play in Maryland's death penalty practice.  He recently wrote about the study's findings in the Baltimore Sun:

I headed the Maryland research team that studied the fairness of the administration of the death penalty in the state. We concluded that race and geography were factors in the decisions that lead to death row. Put another way, whom you kill and where in Maryland you commit the crime make a difference.


We concluded this by sifting data on all 1,311 cases between 1978 and 1999 in which prosecutors could have pursued a death sentence. The question was not just who ended up on death row but who did not and what differentiated these two groups.
. . .
After taking all these other factors into account, we found evidence that race mattered. We found even stronger evidence that the particular jurisdiction where the crime occurred mattered.
. . .

We found that both the race of the victim and, to a lesser extent, the race of the offender, make a difference:


  • Those who killed a white victim in Maryland were between two and three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed a non-white.


  • Black offenders who killed white victims were nearly 2 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than white offenders who killed white victims and nearly 3 1/2 times more likely to be sentenced to death than black offenders who killed black victims.

    We found that these racial differences showed up early in the process, well before the case ever reached a courtroom, in the decisions made by the state's attorneys on whether to seek a death sentence. Further, these patterns held regardless of jurisdiction.
    . . .
    Whatever the reason, the data are clear and the relationships strong: the 21-year record of capital homicide prosecutions suggests that race and geography do play a role in prosecutors' decisions to pursue a death sentence in the state of Maryland.
    . . .
    We consider these findings disturbing. Maryland law spells out a series of aggravating and mitigating factors that alone are supposed to determine whether a convicted murderer gets a death sentence or life in prison. But our study indicated that race and jurisdiction also play a role, affecting cases long before juries ever get to vote - when prosecutors decide whether to pursue a death sentence.

("Misunderstandings Cloud Death Penatly Findings," Baltimore Sun, Dec. 20, 2005).  See also Race.

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COSTS: Death Penalty Has Cost New Jersey Taxpayers $253 Million

A New Jersey Policy Perspectives report concluded that the state's death penalty has cost taxpayers $253 million since 1983, a figure that is over and above the costs that would have been incurred had the state utilized a sentence of life without parole instead of death. The study examined the costs of death penalty cases to prosecutor offices, public defender offices, courts, and correctional facilities. The report's authors said that the cost estimate is "very conservative" because other significant costs uniquely associated with the death penalty were not available. "From a strictly financial perspective, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than this: New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one," the report concluded.  Since 1982, there have been 197 capital trials in New Jersey and 60 death sentences, of which 50 were reversed. There have been no executions, and 10 men are housed on the state's death row.  Michael Murphy, former Morris County prosecutor, remarked: "If you were to ask me how $11 million a year could best protect the people of New Jersey, I would tell you by giving the law enforcement community more resources.  I'm not interested in hypotheticals or abstractions, I want the tools for law enforcement to do their job, and $11 million can buy a lot of tools."  (See Newsday, Nov. 21, 2005; also Press Release, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nov. 21, 2005).  See DPIC's Costs. Also read the Executive Summary. Read the full report. Read the NJADP Press Release.

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NEW RESOURCE: Sentencing Project Examines Relationship Between Incarceration and Crime

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship, a new report by The Sentencing Project, examines the financial and social costs of incarceration, and evaluates the limited effectiveness it has on crime rates. The report notes that the number of people incarcerated in the United States has risen by more than 500% over the past three decades, up from 330,000 people in 1972 to 2.1 million people today. Though an increase in the number of offenders who are incarcerated has played a modest role in the nation's decreasing crime rate, the report notes that this policy is subject to decreasing effectiveness in the long-term. The Sentencing Project warns that increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches to preventing crime will impose a heavy burden upon the courts, corrections systems, and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime. The group recommends that policymakers further assess this problem and adopt more balanced crime control policies that provide resources for crime-prevention efforts such as programming, treatment, and community support.

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NEW RESOURCE: Justice Department Releases "Capital Punishment, 2004" Report

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest report on the status of the death penalty in the U.S., Capital Punishment, 2004, on November 13.  According to the report, the nation's death row population, executions, and the number of people given death sentences last year all declined. There were 3,315 people on state and federal death rows at the conclusion of 2004, 63 fewer than in 2003. Last year, 125 people were sentenced to death, the fewest since 1973. Twelve states executed 59 prisoners in 2004, six fewer than in 2003. Those executed had been under a sentence of death for an average of 11 years, which was one month longer than the period for inmates executed in 2003. Of those under a sentence of death in 2004, 56% were white, 42% were black, and 13% were Hispanic ("Hispanic" is counted as an ethnicity, rather than a race). (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment, 2004, November 13, 2005).  Read the report Capital Punishment, 2004. See also DPIC's 2004 Year End Report

This year, the nation will likely carry out the 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated. For analysis and information about this upcoming event, read DPIC's Press Release.

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ACLU Report Finds Flaws in Alabama's Death Penalty

According to a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), structural and procedural flaws in Alabama’s criminal justice system stack the deck against fair trials and appropriate sentencing for those facing the death penalty. The report, Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Alabama, details unfair and discriminatory practices in the state’s administration of the death penalty. It concentrates on six major areas of concern: inadequate defense, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial override of jury recommendations, execution of the mentally retarded, racial discrimination and geographic disparities. Among the report's key findings are the following:

  • Lack of a statewide public defender system in Alabama creates wide disparities among circuits in their standards of indigent defense, or representation of defendants who can’t afford private legal counsel.
  • Alabama is among the few states that still allow judges in capital trials to override jury recommendations for lesser sentences and impose the death penalty.
  • Eighty-one percent of those executed in Alabama since 1976 were convicted of killing white people, yet only 35 percent of all murders in the state involve white victims.
  • Between 1973 and 2003, nineteen Alabama death penalty cases were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct.
  • The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting execution of mentally retarded offenders left it to the states to define mental retardation. In failing to issue its own definition, Alabama places mentally retarded inmates at risk of unconstitutional execution.

Based on its findings, the ACLU has recommended at temporary halt to executions in Alabama to allow a thorough review of the state's capital punishment system. A July 2005 poll by the Capital Survey Research Center found that 57 percent of Alabamians would support such a moratorium on executions.

Alabama has the sixth -highest execution rate and the sixth-highest death-sentencing rate in the nation. There is no statewide public defender system, and 95 percent of those on death row are unable to afford representation. Five innocent people have been released from Alabama's death row since 1976.

(ACLU Press Release, "New Report Finds Fatal Flaws in Alabama's Death Penalty," October 20, 2005). Read the report. See Representation, Race, Prosecutorial MisconductArbitrariness, and Innocence.

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DETERRENCE: U.S. Murder Rate Declined in 2004, Even As Death Penalty Use Dropped

Even as the use of the death penalty continued to decline in the United States, the number of murders and the national murder rate dropped in 2004. According to the recently released FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2004, the nation's murder rate fell by 3.3%, declining to 5.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2004. By region, the Northeast, which accounts for less than 1% of all U.S. executions, continued to have the nation's lowest murder rate, 4.2. The Midwest had a murder rate of 4.7, and the murder rate in the West was 5.7. The South, which has carried out more than 80% of all U.S. executions, again had the nation's highest murder rate, 6.6. (FBI Uniform Crime Report 2004, released October 2005). In 2004, the number of executions, the number of death sentences, and the size of death row all declined compared to 2003. See Deterrence and Executions.

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Race and the Death Penalty in California RACE AND THE DEATH PENALTY IN CALIFORNIA

A recent study to be published in the Santa Clara Law Review found that the race of the victim in the underlying murder greatly affected whether a defendant would be sentenced to death.

Generally, there are more Hispanic and African American victims of murder in California:

--California Murder Victims 1990-1999 - Office of Vital Statistics; based on murders where race of victim was known;  Whites, African American, and Other are non-Hispanic members of those races.

But in death penalty cases, there are many more white-victim cases than Hispanic or African-American-victim cases:
--Victims of murder in California where the defendant was sentenced to death 1990-1999; based on 263 death sentences where there was a single murder victim.

Conclusions from the study:
Although more Hispanics and African Americans are victims of murder in California, white-victim cases are the ones most likely to end in a death sentence:
  • Those who kill non-Latino whites are more than three times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill African-Americans.
  • Those who kill non-Latino whites are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill Latinos.
  • A person convicted of the same crime is more than three times more likely to be sentenced to die simply because the crime was committed in a predominantly white, rural community rather than a diverse, urban area.
G. Pierce & M. Radelet, "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-1999," 46 Santa Clara Law Review ___ (2005 forthcoming)).  See also  Race and Arbitrariness.

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Research Links Historical Lynchings to Modern Murder Rates and Capital Punishment

Recent research has revealed a close correlation between the U.S. states that historically carried out the most lynchings and the states that today have the highest homicide rates and most death sentences.  In a study led by sociologist Steven Messner of the State University of New York at Albany, county data from 10 southern states where historically reliable information on vigilante lynchings between 1882 and 1930 is available were examined (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee). The study then compared this information to more recent homicide data compiled from 1986 to 1995 by the FBI and National Center for Health Statistics. The comparison revealed that the counties with the most lynchings had the highest homicide rates, and the counties with fewer lynchings had comparatively fewer murders, even when researchers controlled for factors such as population, poverty, low levels of education, the percentage of young people in the population, the unemployment rate, and the percentage of single-parent households. Messner noted that "lynching seems to matter and is relevant to our understanding of contemporary lethal violence" in the South. The latest issue of the American Sociological Review contains more information about this study.

In a second study conducted by sociologists David Jacobs and Jason T. Carmichael of Ohio State University and Stephanie L. Kent of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, research revealed that the number of death sentences for all criminals - black and white - was higher in states with a history of lynchings. The link was particularly strong when the researchers analyzed only death sentences for black defendants. The sociologists theorize that the death penalty became a legal replacement for the lynchings of the past, and that the number of death sentences in states with the most lynchings increased as the state's population of African Americans grew. The researchers noted that this trend suggests that "current racial threat and past vigilantism largely directed against newly freed slaves jointly contribute to current lethal but legal reactions to racial threat." This research will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Sociologial Review.

(Washington Post, September 25, 2005, Outlook section, p.B5). See Arbitrariness and Race.

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Study Finds Race of Victim, Geography Are Key Factors In California Death Sentencing

According to a new study to be published in the Santa Clara Law Review, a defandant in California is more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for murdering a person of any other race, despite there being more black and Hispanic murder victims in the state. The research also shows that geography plays a key role in whether the death penalty will be sought in a particular case.

The study implies that the loss of white lives is considered more important in the justice system than the loss of black or Latino lives.  Among the findings of the study were:

  • Those who kill non-Latino whites are over three times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill African-Americans.
  • Those who kill non-Latino whites are over four times more likely to be sentenced to die as those who kill Latinos.
  • A person convicted of the same crime is more than three times more likely to be
    sentenced to die simply because the crime was committed in a predominantly
    white, rural community rather than a diverse, urban area.

"To put it bluntly, there's apparently different values being placed on victims from different racial and ethnic groups. That's what the pattern would suggest," said Northeastern University criminal justice professor Glenn Pierce, a co-author of the study. Santa Clara University professor Ellen Kreitzberg added, "This study force[s] the people in California to confront the unfairness of how the death penalty is applied in this state. The decision of who will live and who will die in California turns on arbitrary and unlawful factors such as the race and ethnicity of the murder victim or the location where the murder was committed."

(Associated Press, September 22, 2005; ACLU of Northern Calif. Press Release, Sept. 21, 2005; G. Pierce & M. Radelet, "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-1999," 46 Santa Clara Law Review ___ (forthcoming)).  See Race and Arbitrariness.

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STUDIES: Blacks Struck from Juries at Twice the Rate of Whites A two-year Dallas Morning News investigation of jury selection in Dallas County has revealed that prosecutors exclude blacks from juries at more than twice the rate they reject whites, and that race is the most important personal trait affecting which jurors prosecutors reject. The paper's review also found that when potential black and white jurors answered key questions about criminal justice issues the same way, blacks were rejected at a higher rate.
The study examined 108 (non-death penalty) felony cases tried in 2002. Among the findings revealed by the study were the following:
  • Prosecutors rejected 79% of blacks who favored rehabilitation over punishment or deterence, but only 55% of the whites who gave the same answer.

  • Prosecutors excluded 78% of the blacks who acknowledged that they or someone close to them had had contact with the criminal justice system, compared with only 39% of whites.

  • Prosecutors rejected every black who said they or someone close to them had had a bad experience with police or the courts, compared with 39% of whites.

  • Defense attorneys excluded white jurors at three times the rate they rejected blacks.

Texas District Judge Henry Wade Jr., whose father's office was cited repeatedly for race bias in jury selection, said, "I think informally prosecutors talk and say, you know, 'What can we do to get minorities off the jury panel?'" Wade added that when prosecutors ask jurors whether punishment, deterrence or rehabilitation is the main purpose of sentencing, the question is calculated to try to get blacks off juries. "That's just a taught question. A lot of minorities are going to say rehabilitation, so you strike everybody who says rehabilitation and you're covered under Batson. I think that's the only reason they ask it," stated Wade. (In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court held that striking jurors on the basis of race was unconstitutional.) In the past six years, none of the thousands of cases brought to trial in the County has been reversed by Texas courts on a Batson challenge.

(Dallas Morning News, August 21, 2005; part 1 of a 3-part series). See Race and DPIC's page on Thomas Miller-El, a case in which the Supreme Court found racial bias in jury selection in Dallas.

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