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April 29, 2008

More evidence that race infects the death penalty

The New York Times has this new piece from Adam Liptak titled "New Look at Race When Death Is Sought." Here is how it starts:

About 1,100 people have been executed in the United States in the last three decades. Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, accounts for more than 100 of those executions.  Indeed, Harris County has sent more people to the death chamber than any state but Texas itself.

Yet Harris County’s capital justice system has not been the subject of intensive research — until now.  A new study to be published in the Houston Law Review this fall has found two sorts of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty there, one commonplace and one surprising.

The unexceptional finding is that defendants who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks. More than 20 studies around the nation have come to similar conclusions.

But the new study also detected a more straightforward disparity. It found that the race of the defendant by itself plays a major role in explaining who is sentenced to death.... [T]he author of the new study, Scott Phillips, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, found a robust relationship between race and the likelihood of being sentenced to death even after the race of the victim and other factors were held constant.

His statistics have profound implications.  For every 100 black defendants and 100 white defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County, Professor Phillips found that an average of 12 white defendants and 17 black ones would be sent to death row.  In other words, Professor Phillips wrote, "five black defendants would be sentenced to the ultimate sanction because of race."

Wouldn't it be refreshing if the MSM and others would vigorously ask the presidential candidates what they think of this new study rather than what they think of whatever comes out of the mouth of Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

April 29, 2008 at 03:22 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Apr 29, 2008 7:36:37 PM


Wouldn't it be refreshing if the MSM reported honestly on crime and race? In any event, this piece is pretty good, balance wise. Here's the money graf:

"John B. Holmes Jr., the district attorney in the years Professor Phillips studied, 1992 to 1999, asked for the death sentence against 27 percent of the white defendants, 25 percent of the Hispanic defendants and 25 percent of the black defendants. (Professor Phillips studied 504 defendants indicted for the murders of 614 people. About half of the defendants were black; a quarter each were white and Hispanic.)"

So, the Harris County DA pursued the death penalty against blacks/whites and hispanics at nearly even rates per defendant.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 29, 2008 3:43:50 PM

You didn't quote the best part.

"Jon Sorensen, a professor of justice studies at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said he was suspicious of Professor Phillips’s methodology.

'It’s bizarre,' Professor Sorensen said."

And Sorensen is no friend of the death penalty.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Apr 29, 2008 4:28:13 PM

At first blush, I wonder whether the variability in factual circumstances among capital cases outside of race could explain a lot of the disparity. It's not enough to show a p value of <.05 given the heterogeneity of the sample.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 30, 2008 9:35:07 AM

I just skimmed the study and already see major problems with the methodology. It would be nice if someone over at http://www.elsblog.org/ would take a stab at explaining the problems here.

I don't mean to beat-up on law reviews, but I think this is a prime example of what happens when empirical articles are not peer-reviewed. One has to wonder, why a professor of sociology would publish in a law review anyways, since non-referred articles don't "count" anywhere else in academia but law.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 30, 2008 9:47:35 AM

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