STUDIES: Louisiana Death Penalty Staggeringly Error-Prone, Racially Biased

More than 80% of the 241 death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 1976 have been reversed on appeal, and one death row prisoner has been exonerated for every three executions in the state, according to a new study by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Professor Frank Baumgartner and statistician Tim Lyman. The study, to be published in the Southern University Law Center’s Journal of Race, Gender and Poverty, also reveals dramatic racial disparities in both the trial and appellate stages of Louisiana death penalty proceedings. The study notes that 155 of the state's 241 death sentences have reached a final resolution: either a reversal or an execution. Of these death sentences, there have been 28 executions (18.1%) and 127 reversals (81.9%) — including 9 exonerations — giving Louisiana a reversal rate nine percentage points higher than the 72.7% average for death penalty cases nationwide. The researchers also found stark racial disparities in Louisiana's death penalty related both to the race of the victim and to the race of the defendant. Cases involving white victims were six times more likely to result in death sentences than cases involving black victims, and black male defendants charged with killing white female victims were 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than were black male defendants charged with killing black male victims. The study also found that appellate courts were less likely to overturn death sentences in cases involving white victims than those involving black victims, compounding the racial disparities already present in the sentencing stage of the case. As a consequence, a defendant charged with killing a white victim was 14 times more likely to be executed than if the victim was black. The last time Louisiana carried out the death penalty against a white person for a crime involving a black person was in 1752, when the defendant was executed for damaging the property of another white man by stabbing two female slaves. The authors explained, "Race-of-victim effects are powerful at each stage of the death penalty system, accumulating as we move from the original sentence through to execution." Baumgartner said of his findings, “We have to look the death penalty in the eye and understand how it truly does function. Not how we wished it functioned but how it really does function. And every time we do that, it really is disturbing.” (Click image to enlarge, image by The New Orleans Advocate.)

(D. Hasselle, "Few on Louisiana’s death row are ever executed, largely owing to reversals, analysis finds," The New Orleans Advocate, April 27, 2016; M. Chammah, "A Death Sentence in Louisiana Rarely Means You’ll be Executed," The Marshall Project, April 28, 2016; F. Baumgartner and T. Lyman, "Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015," The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, Vol. 7, 2016.) See Studies and Race. A 10th Louisiana death row prisoner, not included in the study because he was convicted before 1976, has also been exonerated. For a list of all Louisiana death row exonerations since 1973, click here.