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