Race of Homicide Victims in Cases Resulting in an Execution since 1976

Racial Justice

For years state and nationwide reports have found that a pervasive racial prejudice in the application of the death penalty exists. From evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, discriminatory jury practices (particularly in communities of color and/or localities with racial issues), and the disproportionate amount of death sentences handed out to black defendants, race plays a central role in capital punishment – it is a statistical reality in this country, one which requires immediate action.

In their 1990 report, the non-partisan General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The study ultimately concluded that “in 82 percent 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 more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” This has been further supported by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.

A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland determined that race, as well as geography, are major factors in death penalty decisions; they found that prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American. A later report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American and a 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to impose. From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are rendered less valuable when they are victims.

More recently, a March 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society found enormous racial disparities. In its executive summary, the report states, “African-Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in ‘group exonerations.'”

All-white, or virtually all-white juries are still far too common in many trials and localities. A North Carolina study of jury selection in 173 death penalty cases found that black prospective jurors were more than twice as likely to be struck by the prosecution as similarly situated white jurors. A 2003 study of 390 felony jury trials prosecuted in Jefferson Parish, La., found that black prospective jurors were struck at three times the rate of whites. And in Houston County, Ala., prosecutors between 2005 and 2009 used their peremptory strikes to eliminate 80 percent of the blacks qualified for jury service in death penalty cases. The result of this, was that half of these juries ended up entirely white, and the remainder had only a single black member, even though the county is 27 percent black.

The death penalty in Missouri is racially skewed. In Missouri, executions are seven times more likely in cases involving White victims than in cases involving Black victims. And homicides involving White female victims are nearly fourteen times more likely to result in an execution than those involving Black male victims. Eighty-one percent of the individuals executed in Missouri were convicted of killing White victims even though White victims are less than 40% of all murder victims in the state. Further, even though the vast majority of murders involve an offender and victim(s) of the same race, 54% of the African-American men executed by Missouri were convicted of crimes involving White victims.
In Missouri, 36.2% of the prison population is African-American, despite only making up 11.6% of the total population and “research finds that assumptions by key decision makers in the justice system influence outcomes in a biased manner. In research on presentence reports, for example, scholars have found that people of color are frequently given harsher sanctions because they are perceived as imposing a greater threat to public safety and are therefore deserving of greater social control and punishment.” (The Color of Justice)

UALR Significant Findings

University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) Chancellor Joel E. Anderson, in his 9/30/03 inauguration speech, said: “Race, particularly white-black race relations, has been a major problem, indeed the major problem, the biggest obstacle to progress, in our state since it was founded in 1836.” Anderson has committed UALR to using the university’s resources to remove these barriers to progress toward racial and ethnic justice through research and dialogue, and in his words, “You have to face it to fix it”

UALR conceived of a research project for the purpose to examine longstanding racial disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System, and, based on research and analysis, develop policy, practice and community programming recommendations to minimize, if not eliminate, these disparities. It is a model that other states can adopt and use to implement effective reforms.

Further Reading