Policy Issues


Racial bias against defendants of color and in favor of white victims has a strong effect on who is capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed.

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

The Duane Buck Case: Race, Future Dangerousness, and the Death Penalty, with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Christina Swarns


The death penalty has long come under scrutiny for being racially biased. Earlier in the twentieth century when it was applied for the crime of rape, 89 percent of the executions involved black defendants, most for the rape of a white woman. In the modern era, when executions have been carried out exclusively for murder, 75 percent of the cases involve the murder of white victims, even though about half of all homicide victims in America are black.

A bias towards white-victim cases has been found in almost all of the sophisticated studies exploring this area over many years. These studies typically control for other variables in the cases studied, such as the number of victims or the brutality of the crime, and still found that defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death if they killed a white person.

The issue of racial disparities in the use of the death penalty was considered by the Supreme Court in 1987. In a close vote, the Court held that studies alone could not provide the required proof of racial discrimination in a particular defendant’s case. This decision appeared to close the door to broad challenges to the death penalty. However, the Court has found racial discrimination in the selection of the jury in individual capital cases.

At Issue

Today there is growing evidence that racial bias continues in society, particularly within the criminal justice system. The existence of implicit racial bias among some law enforcement officers, witnesses, jurors, and others allows harsher punishment of minorities, even without legal sanction or intention. Although these prejudices are hard to uproot, the unfair application of the death penalty could be halted by eliminating that sentencing option altogether.

What DPIC Offers 

DPIC tracks the race of those on death row, those who have been executed, the victims in the underlying crime, and many related statistics. It collects the sophisticated studies on racial bias that have been published over many years. Many of DPIC’s reports focus on aspects of this question and some are devoted entirely to the issue of race.

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