Study Reveals Racial Bias in Executions


A new study found that defendants convicted of murder in cases with white victims were a staggering 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing a Black person.

Published in this summer’s issue of The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, the study by University of Denver researchers Scott Phillips and Justin Marceau expands on research considered by the Supreme Court in the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp case.

Law professor David Baldus presented statistical evidence in McCleskey showing that Georgia defendants were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white than if the victim was Black. The Court accepted the data was accurate, but it refused to reverse the death sentence because it concluded that racial bias in sentencing is “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.”

As Adam Liptak recounts for The New York Times, McCleskey has been widely criticized. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, said after he retired that McCleskey was the one vote he would like to change.

McCleskey is the Dred Scott decision of our time. It is a declaration that African-American life has no value which white men are bound to respect.

Law professor Anthony Amsterdam

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a dissenter in McCleskey, condemned the decision in 2010. “That the murder of Black victims is treated as less culpable than the murder of white victims provides a haunting reminder of once-prevalent Southern lynchings,” he wrote.

The death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching.

Evaluating about 2,500 cases between 1973 and June 2019, the study specifically found that 2.26% of the defendants who were convicted of killing a white victim were ultimately executed, compared to just 0.13% of the defendants convicted of killing a Black victim.

The new study determined that the “the infamous arbitrariness uncovered by Baldus was only the tip of the iceberg.” While Professor Baldus and other researchers documented the role of race in predicting who would be sentenced to death, the study notes, most people who are sentenced to death are not executed—their sentences are reversed in court or commuted by governors.

Indeed, the overall execution rate among the cases studied by Professor Baldus is less than 1% (24 out of 2,475), the study found.

The study found that these post-sentencing judicial and executive interventions “inject an additional, previously undocumented level of racial disparity into the system.” In short, the rate of relief is higher for persons who kill Black victims.

By showing that race plays a role in predicting the few among those sentenced to death who will actually be executed, the new study demonstrates that the impact of race on death penalty outcomes is even greater than previously known.