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.

News & Developments


Jun 14, 2024

Remembering the Execution of 14-year-old George Stinney, 80 Years Later

June 16, 2024, marks 80 years since South Carolina exe­cut­ed 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. Historical reports indi­cate that on March 24, 1944, Mr. Stinney and his younger sis­ter, Aime, were play­ing out­side when two white girls approached them, ask­ing where they could find a par­tic­u­lar flower. Neither Mr. Stinney nor his sis­ter knew where the young girls could find these flow­ers and they quick­ly moved along. That evening, when both young girls failed to return home, a search par­ty was sent to…

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Jun 12, 2024

Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Identifies Death Penalty as a Legislative Priority Due to Legacy of Racial Violence and Bias

On June 11, 2024, the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus (OLBC) held a press con­fer­ence high­light­ing the group’s leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties, which includ­ed the death penal­ty as a key con­cern. Noting the racial cycle of injus­tice per­pe­trat­ed by the death penal­ty,” State Representative Terrence Upchurch, who is also the pres­i­dent of the OLBC, insist­ed that leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship move toward dis­man­tling this flawed sys­tem and estab­lish­ing a new lega­cy of equal­i­ty and jus­tice in…

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May 28, 2024

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Categorically Bars Review of Racial Bias in Capital Jury Selection

On May 3, 2024, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals announced its deci­sion in the case of Christopher Henderson, a death-sen­tenced man who had been tried by an all-white jury in Madison County, Alabama, where the pop­u­la­tion is 24.6% Black. Prosecutors in his cap­i­tal tri­al used peremp­to­ry strikes to remove six of the 10 qual­i­fied Black poten­tial jurors and all remain­ing jurors of col­or. Mr. Henderson’s coun­sel from the Equal Justice Initiative iden­ti­fied evi­dence that the prosecutor’s…

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May 22, 2024

Family of Youngest Person Executed in Pennsylvania History Sues County for His Wrongful Conviction and Execution 93 Years Ago

Susie Williams Carter was just a baby when her 16-year-old broth­er, Alexander McClay Williams, was con­vict­ed of mur­der and exe­cut­ed in Pennsylvania in 1931. Over 90 years lat­er, Ms. Carter, now 94, con­tin­ues her family’s deter­mi­na­tion to clear her brother’s name. In June 2022, a Delaware County, Pennsylvania judge agreed that law enforce­ment had dis­re­gard­ed evi­dence and coerced Mr. Williams into sign­ing mul­ti­ple false con­fes­sions. All charges against Mr. Williams were posthu­mous­ly dismissed…

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May 16, 2024

New DPIC Report Traces Ohio’s History of Racial Violence to the Modern Use of Capital Punishment in the State

On Tuesday, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report that con­nects Ohio’s racial his­to­ry to the mod­ern use of the death penal­ty in the state. Broken Promises: How a History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty doc­u­ments how racial dis­crim­i­na­tion is the through­line that runs from the state’s found­ing to its appli­ca­tion of cap­i­tal punishment…

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