STUDIES: Louisiana Study Finds Race and Gender Bias in Application of Death Penalty

Louisiana’s death penalty is disproportionately imposed in cases involving white female victims, especially if the defendant in the case is a Black man, a new study by three leading death-penalty researchers has confirmed. Louisiana prosecutors were more than five times as likely to seek the death penalty, and juries more than five times as likely to impose it, in cases involving a Black male offender and a white female victim than in crimes in which both the alleged offender and the victim were Black.

“The Louisiana death penalty system is heavily weighted by a tendency to seek the harshest penalties in those cases with white female victims,” the study found. “Our powerful and consistent findings of racial and gender-based disparities hold in a multivariate analysis and are inconsistent with the equal protection of the law or any common understanding of equality or justice.”

The study, Race and Gender Disparities in Capitally-Charged Louisiana Homicide Cases, 1976-2014, published in the Southern University Law Review, was conducted by Northeastern University researcher Tim Lyman, University of North Carolina political scientist Frank R. Baumgartner, and Northeastern University criminologist Glenn L. Pierce. Their previous research on Louisiana’s application of the death penalty showed significant disparities in the sentencing outcomes of defendants with white victims as compared to those with Black victims. In this new study, the researchers reviewed more than 6,000 homicides, of which 1,822 were capitally charged. The authors sought to determine if the racial disparities uncovered in their previous research could be explained by legally relevant circumstances. Comparing capitally charged homicides to those that were not capitally charged, they examined legally relevant factors (number of victims, age of victims, and other measures of severity) and those that were legally irrelevant (race, gender, location) in cases in which capital charges were dropped or reduced, and in those that proceeded as capital.

The vast majority of cases (79%) that were initially capitally charged had charges reduced before the end of the prosecution and only 107 of the cases in the study eventually resulted in death sentences. The researchers found “as the cases move through the successive filters of the capital prosecution process, the racial characteristics change dramatically. Cases with white victims, are much more likely to have harsher outcomes, particularly Black-on-White crimes. Black-on-Black crimes, by contrast, represent a smaller share at each stage of the process.” (Click to enlarge image above.) They write that “having a white victim doubled the probability of a death sentence for a white suspect” but Black defendants charged with killing white victims “were 8.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those suspected of killing blacks.”

The researchers found that sentencing disparities were even more pronounced when both race and gender were considered. After comparing otherwise similar homicide cases with Black suspects and victims to cases with Black male suspects and white female victims, they found that Black male suspects with white female victims are almost five times more likely to face a final charge of first-degree murder, and therefore be eligible for the death penalty in Louisiana. Homicides with a Black suspect and victim have “about a 10% chance of proceeding to final capital charges.” In similarly situated cases, this probability “increases to approximately 40%” in cases with Black male suspects and white female victims. These findings, they write, show that despite being legally irrelevant, a victim’s race and gender are “highly important predictors” of sentencing outcomes.

The study’s findings build upon past research that Lyman, Baumgartner, and Pierce conducted on Louisiana’s death penalty system. Pierce and colleagues previously examined the significance of a victim’s race on sentencing outcomes in a 2011 study titled Death Sentencing in East Baton Rouge Parish, 1990– 2008. In that study, Pierce found that with all other variables held constant, “the odds of receiving a death sentence in a black victim case are on average 97.3% lower than are the odds of a death sentence in a white victim case.” Pierce followed this research with a 2014 study on racial disparities at earlier stages of the arrest and sentencing process in Louisiana, titled Race and the Construction of Evidence in Homicide Cases. Those findings showed that prosecutors expend “greater investigative effort” and compile more extensive case files in homicide cases with white victims compared to those with Black victims.

Baumgartner and Lyman also conducted a study on death sentencing in Louisiana in 2015 and found data to “suggest that the death penalty may be focused on cases with white victims, particularly white female victims.” The researchers also reviewed death sentences through the appellate process in another 2015 study and found that “cases involving a white victim were less likely to be reversed on appeal.”

Of the 28 prisoners put to death in Louisiana between 1972 and 2020, nine were Black defendants with white victims. Twenty of those 28 were charged with killing at least one female victim. None of the white prisoners executed were sentenced for any crime involving a Black victim. The 2021 study shows that “race and gender of the victims have a strong effect” on determining which defendants ultimately receive the death penalty.

“The Louisiana death penalty system targets crimes with white female victims for the harshest punishment and treats those with black male victims the lightest,” the researchers conclude, demonstrating “the continued and pervasive influence of race in the Louisiana death penalty system.” If Louisiana cannot administer capital punishment in a manner that comports with equal protection of the law and common conceptions of justice, they write, it should abandon the death penalty as a sentencing option.

Sources

Tim Lyman, Frank R. Baumgartner, and Glenn L. Pierce, Race and Gender Disparities in Capitally-Charged Louisiana Homicide Cases, 1976 – 2014, Southern University Law Review, 2021.