STUDIES: Death Penalty Overwhelmingly Used for White-Victim Cases

According to a new study principally authored by Prof. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina, the death penalty is far more likely to be used if the underlying murder victim was white rather than black. The study examined every U.S. execution from 1976-2013 and found, “The single most reliable predictor of whether a defendant in the United States will be executed is the race of the victim….Capital punishment is very rarely used where the victim is a Black male, despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide.” Of the 534 white defendants executed for the murder of a single victim, only nine involved the murder of a black male victim. Although blacks make up about 47% of all murder victims, they make up only 17% of victims in cases resulting in an execution. The authors concluded, “In [the death penalty’s] modern history as in its use in previous eras, racial bias in its application is consistently high. In addition to the threat to the equal protection of the law that these numbers suggest, such overwhelming evidence of differential treatment erodes public support for the judicial system.”

The authors also reviewed other studies on this subject published since 1972 and found, “The vast majority of these (death sentencing) studies found that killers of Whites were more likely than killers of Blacks to receive a death sentence.”

(F. Baumgartner et al., “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter: Race-of-Victim Effects in US Executions, 1976-2013,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, forthcoming 2015). See Studies and Race.