David Baldus, Author of Groundbreaking Study on Race and the Death Penalty, Dies


David C. Baldus, a University of Iowa College of Law professor whose empirical research powerfully demonstrated racial bias in the application of the death penalty, has died.

Professor Baldus authored a groundbreaking study that found that people accused of killing white victims were four times as likely to be sentenced to death as those accused of killing Black victims.

The Baldus study was at the heart of a 1987 Supreme Court case, McCleskey v. Kemp, in which Warren McCleskey, a Black man sentenced to death in Georgia in the killing of a white police officer, challenged Georgia’s death penalty on the ground that it was racially biased.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court rejected Mr. McCleskey’s claim. Although Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the majority, acknowledged that “the Baldus study indicates a discrepancy that appears to correlate with race,” he refused to find that racial bias rendered the death penalty unconstitutional because, he wrote, such disparities in sentencing are “inevitable.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned, “if we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty,” which would “throw[] into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.”

In dissent, Justice William Brennan criticized the Court for rejecting McCleskey’s claim out of “a fear of too much justice.”

Justice Powell, when asked after his retirement from the Court whether there was any vote he would have liked to change, said he would have changed his vote in McCleskey.

Professor Baldus devoted his career to documenting racial bias in the death penalty, conducting numerous studies and writing two books, “Statistical Proof of Discrimination” and “Equal Justice and the Death Penalty.”

EJI is committed to documenting and challenging racial bias in the death penalty and throughout the criminal justice system. EJI’s latest such report, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy, examines racial bias in jury selection. During two years of research in eight southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee), EJI interviewed over 100 African-American citizens who were excluded from jury service based on race and reviewed hundreds of court documents and records.

EJI uncovered shocking, present-day evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection, including that racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases.