A study of 40 years of Texas death sentences has found that the likelihood that a defendant accused of a death-eligible murder will be sentenced to death is three times greater if the case involves a white female victim.

The study, A Systematic Lottery: The Texas Death Penalty, 1976 to 2016, by Scott Phillips (pictured, left) and Trent Steidley (pictured, right), University of Denver professors in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, compared two groups of Texas murder defendants: those who could have been sentenced to death under Texas law and those who actually were sentenced to death. They found that in 13% of the approximately 9,000 death-eligible cases, defendants had been charged with killing a white female victim. However, white females were victims in 36% of the approximately 1,000 cases in which capital defendants were sentenced to death. They also found that “an execution was 2.8 times more likely in cases with a white female victim than one would expect in a system that is blind to race and gender.”

In their Spring 2020 article in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, the authors reference Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, which asserted that “death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” Returning to that theme in a September 6, 2020 commentary in the Dallas Morning News, Phillips and Steidley write that “if the death penalty is a lightning bolt then killing a white woman in Texas is like standing in an open field with a lightning rod.”

The authors argue that the death penalty is a “systematic lottery” that is “indiscriminate yet discriminatory.” For the most part, Phillips and Steidley found no distinction between the vast majority of cases that did not result in death sentences and the comparatively few that did. One distinction, they said, was “the social characteristics of the victim.”

This race of victim distinction, they argue, raises the same significant constitutional questions about the arbitrariness of capital punishment that led the Court to strike down existing death penalty laws in Furman. But apart from the constitutional ramifications, they write in their Morning News commentary, “the statistical pattern raises an ethical problem that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore: In the criminal justice system, a crime committed against a white person is often treated as more serious than a crime committed against a Black person. In Texas, the murder of a white woman can rev the engine of retribution. Yet retribution is not justice if the race and gender of the victim influence the outcome of the case.”

By now, the evidence of race-of-victim sentencing disparities is so well established that “[t]o say that killing a white woman increases the chance of a death sentence is about as controversial as saying that smoking increases the chance of cancer.” In this “moment of national reckoning on race and criminal justice,” they say, “[t]he more interesting question is whether change is coming.”


Scott Phillips and Trent Steidley, Our research shows the death sen­tence in Texas is more like­ly if the vic­tim is a white woman, Dallas Morning News, September 6, 2020; Scott Phillips and Trent Steidley, A Systematic Lottery: The Texas Death Penalty, 1976 to 2016, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 2020.