RESOURCES: New Study Examines Effect of Death Penalty on Plea Bargaining

A recent study by Sherod Thaxton (pictured) of the University of Chicago Law School examined the effect of the threat of the death penalty on plea bargaining. Using statistical analysis of charging and sentencing data in Georgia between 1993 and 2000, Thaxton found that the possibility of a death sentence increased the likelihood of a plea bargain: “deterring two out of every ten death noticed defendants from pursuing a trial.” However, the lower number of trials does not offset the high costs of the death penalty, he found. “The empirical findings in this article suggest that the threat of the death penalty has a substantial causal effect on the likelihood that a defendant accepts a plea agreement. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the effect is clearly insufficient to offset the substantial administrative and financial costs arising from the occasional capital defendant taking her chances at trial.” In many cases, the author said, significant pre-trial costs are incurred even before a plea agreement is reached. The study, Leveraging Death, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

(S. Thaxton, “Leveraging Death,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, forthcoming (2012); DPIC posted, Sept. 13, 2012). Sherod Thaxton is the Earl B. Dickerson Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School. See Studies and Costs.