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July 24, 2010

New research suggests race of victim impacts NC death penalty administration

This new AP article, headlined "Researchers find race disparity in NC death cases," reports on a new study that suggests how race impacts the administration of capital punishment in the Tar Heel State.  Here are the details:

A convicted killer is three times more likely to get a death sentence in North Carolina if the victim is white rather than black, according to researchers who have found similar results in other states.

The report comes weeks before a deadline for death row inmates to challenge their status under the Racial Justice Act, a state law that allows statistical evidence to be used to support a claim that race was a key factor in a death penalty decision.  North Carolina is the second state after Kentucky to adopt such a law. It aims to prevent black defendants from being punished more harshly than whites.

The study was conducted by Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Glenn Pierce, criminology researcher at Northeastern University in Boston.  They studied reports to the FBI on 14,749 North Carolina homicides between 1980 and 2007 in which victims and suspects were identified as black or white.  The researchers compared those cases against 352 death sentence cases.

A little more than 1 percent of those suspected of killing blacks were sentenced to death, compared to nearly 4 percent of those suspected of killing whites, said Radelet.  He has found similar results in studies involving capital cases in Florida and Louisiana.

Race remained an important predictor of who was sentenced to death even after statistically separating the effect of other factors, such as whether a killer took the lives of multiple victims and whether a murder was accompanied by other felonies such as rape or robbery, Radelet said Friday....

The president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys decried the study after a brief review.  Prosecutors balance many factors when deciding whether to pursue a capital case, said Seth Edwards, the top prosecutor in Martin, Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde and Beaufort counties.   "I strongly disagree with the implication that prosecutors base their decision to seek the ultimate punishment on the race of the victim or the defendant," Edwards said in an e-mail to The News & Observer of Raleigh. "Prosecutors do not look at skin color. We consider lots of things, but race is not one of them."

Radelet said he and Pierce have studied the effectiveness of the death penalty for 30 years, often finding it wanting.  They decided to study race in North Carolina capital cases after the state's General Assembly approved the Racial Justice Act last year and there were few studies available on the subject, Radelet said.

He admits that not every factor used by prosecutors in decisions to seek death was included in his study. He said the racial disparity in death penalty convictions could be explained by other factors including prior criminal records, or whether the defendant and victim were family or strangers.

A broader study might also examine the races of the prosecutors involved in death penalty decisions, the races of the trial judges, and the races of jurors who serve in capital cases, Radelet said.

July 24, 2010 at 09:52 AM | Permalink


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The second-to-last paragraph is a might strong caveat to bury at the end of the article, don't you think? And the last paragraph is just plain insanitas.

Posted by: NCProsecutor | Jul 24, 2010 10:23:02 AM

More than a "caveat," that paragraph is an admission that the "study" is worthless.

"He admits that not every factor used by prosecutors in decisions to seek death was included in his study. He said the racial disparity in death penalty convictions could be explained by other factors including prior criminal records, or whether the defendant and victim were family or strangers."

Failure to control for the highly relevant variable of prior criminal record is research malpractice. This study should be filed in the trash can.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jul 24, 2010 12:08:16 PM

Was it broken down by county? If a county where black victims are concentrated, then the numbers are going to be skewed if that county is lenient when it comes to the death penalty. This is so obvious, and if Radelet didn't deal with this issue, either he's an idiot or he's dishonest.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 24, 2010 2:00:02 PM

In addition to what NCProsecutor and Kent have said, I would note this line in the article: "[The state statute] aims to prevent black defendants from being punished more harshly than whites."

That murders of black VICTIMS result in death sentences proportionately less often than murders of whites does not even suggest, much less establish, discrimination against black DEFENDANTS, which is what the law aims to remedy.

Discrimination against black defendants means singling them out for harsher treatment because of THEIR race. But the Radlet study shows nothing of the kind, and does not even claim to so far as I have been able to find. This is so even though you can bet your bottom dollar that that is what the researchers were doing their darndest to find. (Their failure to find it mirrors a similar failure in a Maryland study a few years ago).

In other words, the North Carolina study finds a disproportionality that is irrelevant to the purpose for which is was ostensibly undertaken, while, as Kent notes, also confessing that it intentionally ignored non-racial factors that could easily account for the statistical outcome.

If I had tried to pull something like that in grad school I would have flunked out.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 24, 2010 2:17:37 PM

You're Wrong. No, really, you are... (from SentencingSpeak)

You know them. I know them. They're those people who have their facts wrong or don't know the facts, but believe they're right anyway. And sometimes, the more you try to educate them, the deeper they dig themselves in. Even when they get the right facts, they still hold onto the wrong beliefs. And they hold on even tighter than they did before.

What can we do with these kinds of people?

Perhaps nothing, says this lengthy but fascinating and worthwhile article in the Boston Globe. It blows some holes in one of the deepest, most sacred assumptions about our democracy, the idea that educated citizens (and legislators) make better choices at the polls and in the halls of Congress.

After summing up a lot of political science research, the article comes to this crushing conclusion: Giving people good facts about an issue (say, sentencing laws) may not mean people actually change their minds. It might actually make them even more devoted to their wrong beliefs.

Posted by: George | Jul 24, 2010 3:42:39 PM

George --

If an informed citizenry is not the answer, what alternative do you propose?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 24, 2010 3:47:28 PM

Mr. Bill, perhaps a more fundamental question is this: is the citizenry really informed? I'm not so sure and in fact doubt that a media focused on ratings and circulation really cares all that much about an informed citizenry. One solution might be a practical logic course in every semester of high school to prepare future voters for the political lies and manipulations during election years, but would the pols would want that? Politics in many respects depends on a naive citizenry.

Posted by: George | Jul 24, 2010 4:05:53 PM

If the difference between 1% and 4% is statistically significant, the significance should be corrected for the influence of the large sample size. Once done, there is no statistically significant difference.

Even if there were a significant difference, it would still be very small at the gut feeling level. The average criminal could not feel it.

These data point to the devaluation of the dark skinned crime victim by the racist lawyer hierarchy. The remedy? A minimum number of death sentences for the murderers of black folks. Lest anyone think their 6 fold greater burden of murder makes black folks any more accepting or less upset, don't. The survivors of black murder victims suffer as much as those of white murder victims.

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