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October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 at 11:57 PM | Permalink

Comments

The does flag a possible regional bias issue.

As to the race disparity, if the specific situation in Pennsylvania is positive, that would be appreciated. Would like to see a reply from those defense attorneys and the like. Also, there is this from the article:

The study noted that blacks make up about 12 percent of the Pennsylvania population, yet they make up more than half of those sentenced to death.

Wolf has said he was concerned about what he called a “flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.

So, the report cites various possible problems [going by the summary] and even the summary flags a possible racial effect of some sort. Of course, we are going by a summary based on a leaked report, so final conclusions should be hedged.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 24, 2017 2:48:33 PM

Isn't the sentence written into the criminal statute, so if you're found guilty of violating the statute, you get the death penalty?

Unless the judge and/or jury can deal out sentences discretionarily rather than by statute, you'd expect men and women to get the death penalty at the same rate, whites and blacks to get it at the same rate, etc.

Posted by: discretionary sentencing is bigotry | Oct 24, 2017 2:55:30 PM

The self evident remedy to condemn more blacks who kill blacks to death.

Posted by: David Behar | Oct 24, 2017 3:07:37 PM

hahahahahahahaah!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Oct 24, 2017 3:22:50 PM

"Isn't the sentence written into the criminal statute, so if you're found guilty of violating the statute, you get the death penalty?"

Juries have discretion. https://law.justia.com/codes/pennsylvania/2015/title-42/chapter-97/section-9711/

As usual, their is discretion in the front end, when prosecutors determine what to charge.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 24, 2017 4:38:17 PM

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