Ways that Race Can Affect Death Sentencing

Studies from across the nation have examined the influence of race in the application of the criminal justice system. Many have shown that race remains a factor in various aspects of death penalty.

Race of the Victim

Nationally, around 75% of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution have been white, even though nationally only 40% of murder victims generally are white. A 1990 examination of death penalty sentencing conducted by the United States General Accounting Office noted that, “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” Individual state studies have found similar disparities. In fact, race of victim disparities have been found in most death penalty states. For example:

  • Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997” This study, the most comprehensive ever conducted on the death penalty in North Carolina, was released by researchers from the University of North Carolina. The study, based on data collected from court records of 502 murder cases from 1993 to 1997, found that race plays a significant role in who gets the death penalty. Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah of the University of North Carolina found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. “The odds are supposed to be zero that race plays a role,” said Dr. Unah. “No matter how the data was analyzed, the race of the victim always emerged as an important factor in who received the death penalty.”
  • According to the findings of a Governor-commissioned death penalty study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the state’s death penalty system is tainted with racial bias, and geography plays a significant role in who faces a capital conviction. The study, one of the nation’s most comprehensive official reviews on race and the death penalty, concluded that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if they have killed a white person. See DPIC’s Press Release. For more information about the study, see the Complete Study (Released on January 7, 2003).
  • “Race and Death Sentencing for Oklahoma Homicides Committed Between 1990-2012” This study investigated how race plays a role in the distribution of death sentences and found a strong correlation between the race of the victim and death sentencing, rather than the race of the defendant. According to this study, an individual is more likely to receive a death sentence for killing a white victim than for killing a non-white victim. (Released in 2017)


Race of the Defendant

Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 42% white, 41% Black, and 14% Latinx. Of states with more than 10 people on death row, Texas (74%) and Louisiana (73%) have the largest percentage of minorities on death row. 2020 census data revealed that the racial composition of the United States was 58.9% white (not Hispanic or Latino), 13.6% Black and 19.1% Hispanic or Latino. While these statistics might suggest that minorities are overrepresented on death row, the same statistical studies that have found evidence of race of victim effects in capital sentencing have not always found evidence of similar race of defendant effects. However, race of the defendant effects have been found in some jurisdictions. For example:

  • According to a recently updated study by Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, jurors in Washington “were four and one half times more likely to impose a sentence of death when the defendant was black than [] they were in cases involving similarly situated white defendants.” The earlier version of the study had found that juries were three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. The disparity in sentencing occurred despite the fact that prosecutors were 
    slightly more likely to seek the death penalty against white defendants. The study examined 285 cases in which defendants were convicted of aggravated murder. The cases were analyzed for factors that might influence sentencing, including the number of victims, the prior criminal record of the defendant, and the number of aggravating factors alleged by the prosecutor. THE ROLE OF RACE IN WASHINGTON STATE CAPITAL SENTENCING, 1981-2014 (Originally published Jan. 27, 2014, updated with additional data 2015). The original version of the study, covering only 1981-2012, is available here.


Race of the Jurors

In capital cases, one juror can represent the difference between life and death. A belief that members of one race, gender, or religion might generally be less inclined to impose a death sentence can lead the prosecutor to allow as few of such jurors as possible. For example: 

  • A Dallas Morning News review of trials in that jurisdiction found systematic exclusion of Black individuals from juries. In a two-year study of over 100 felony cases in Dallas County, the prosecutors dismissed Black people from jury service twice as often as white people. Even when the newspaper compared similar jurors who had expressed opinions about the criminal justice system (a reason that prosecutors had given for the elimination of jurors, claiming that race was not a factor), black jurors were excused at a much higher rate than white jurors. Of jurors who said that either they or someone close to them had had a bad experience with the police or the courts, prosecutors struck 100% of the Black potential jurors, but only 39% of the white potential jurors.


Race of the Prosecutor

Whenever and wherever capital punishment is authorized by law, the decision whether or not to seek a death sentence in particular cases is left to the discretion of the prosecutor. Surveys of prosecutors have found a striking lack of diversity. For example:

  • A 1998 examination of Chief District Attorneys in states with the death penalty found that nearly 98% are white, 1% are black, and 1% are Hispanic.
  • According to a study by the Women Donors Network, 95% of elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white and 79% are white men. An analysis by DPIC of the study’s data further shows that, in states that have the death penalty, 94.5% of elected prosecutors are white. In 9 death penalty 
    states (Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming), 100% of elected prosecutors are white. (N. Fandos, “A Study Documents the Paucity of Black Elected Prosecutors: Zero in Most States,” The New York Times, July 7, 2015).
Race of pros­e­cu­tors in death-penal­ty states as of 2015. [Note: The abo­li­tion of the death penal­ty in Nebraska men­tioned in the graph­ic was halt­ed by a vot­er ref­er­en­dum and nev­er went into effect.]