The Situationist

The Situation of Death Row

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 3, 2007

Capital punishment is undoubtedly one of the more controversial and increasingly unique features of the American criminal justice system. While every European country (except Belarus), along with Canada and Australia, have abolished capital punishment, the United States is among a dwindling number of democracies, including Japan and India, that preserve it. Capital punishment isn’t available in every U.S. State, although 38 states sanction it, as does the federal government. Since 1976, there have been 1,089 executions in the United States, 398 of which occurred in the state of Texas.

In this week’s issue of Newsweek, Eve Conant examines a study appearing in the August issue of the American Sociological Review on whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the death penalty or life in prison. Her story is mainly comprised of an interview with David Jacobs, coauthor of the study and a professor of sociology and political science at Ohio State University. Below we have excerpted portions of her story.

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Is American justice colorblind? A new study finds that blacks on death row convicted of killing whites are more likely to be executed than whites who kill minorities. It also concludes that blacks who kill other minorities are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites. The authors of the report say their findings raise serious doubts about claims that the U.S. criminal justice system is colorblind.

Appearing in the August issue of American Sociological Review, the report claims to be the first of its kind to study whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the ultimate punishment. The study examined outcomes of 1,560 people sentenced to death in 16 states between 1972 and 2002. NEWSWEEK’s Eve Conant spoke to David Jacobs, coauthor of the study and a professor of sociology and political science at Ohio State University.

NEWSWEEK: Why did you do this study?

David Jacobs: Because the role of race is a fundamental question about the death penalty. There was a lot of research, mostly on one or two Southern states, which found that if an African-American killed a white, that they’d be more likely to get the death penalty. But you have to remember that only about 10 percent of those who get the death sentence actually get executed. Most people wind up leaving death row and going back to prison where they serve long sentences. But we really didn’t know much about what happened to offenders after they were sentenced to death and that’s what’s unique about this study. We didn’t know the factors that cause executions. There have been a few studies, but we didn’t know if a black or Hispanic who kills a white person would be more likely to be executed. We knew it was more likely that these offenders would get the death sentence. But we didn’t know if they were more likely to actually get executed.

NEWSWEEK: So what did you find?

David Jacobs: Holding a whole bunch of stuff constant, including several political variables, we found that if a black person killed a white person they were more likely to get executed. If a Hispanic killed a white person they were also more likely, but this probability wasn’t quite as strong. There is more than a twofold greater risk that an African-American who killed a white will be executed than a white person who kills a nonwhite victim. A Hispanic is at least 1.4 times more likely to be executed if such an offender kills a white. Both findings are statistically significant. Also, the findings indicate that blacks who kill nonwhites are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites, which shows that the postsentencing capital-punishment process continues to place greater value on white lives.

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For the rest of the piece, click here. In a previous post, “Black History is Now,” Jon Hanson & Michael McCann discussed a recent and remarkable study by Jennifer Ebehardt and co-authors that examined the life-and-death significance of “blackness” and found a disturbing correlation between how prototypically “black” a death-eligible criminal defendant was and whether that defendant was sentenced to death.

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One Response to “The Situation of Death Row”

  1. […] The research is discussed further in an interview with Jacobs in Newsweek last month (hat tip: The Situationist Blog) […]

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