Race and the Death Penalty, II: Black Defendants, White Victims

This is the second part of a four-part series on the most common death penalty cases: those involving black defendants and white victims. In this post, *we explore some of the research about the racial dynamics in this type of death penalty case.

Most crime is intra-racial, that is it happens among the same racial group. The majority of homicides of whites are perpetrated by other whites, the majority of homicides involving black victims are perpetrated by other blacks.

Yet, despite this statistical fact, the black defendant/white victim has the highest chance of being selected for a death sentence.   One study in the midwest found that prosecutors are 2.5 times more likely to seek the death penalty when a black defendant kills a white victim.

One factor that may be influencing the death penalty decision is the race of the prosecutor.  According to a study conducted by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak of St. Mary’s University School of Law, the racial breakdown of District Attorneys in death penalty states is as follows: 97.5% whites, 1.2% black, and 1.2% Hispanic. There is no absolute way to show that because the majority of District Attorneys in America are white, they are racist against blacks. However, prosecutorial discretion studies illustrate racial patterns in cases where death sentences are sought.

Another factor that researchers have examined is the race of the jury pool.  In cases involving a black defendant and white victim, having five white males on the jury doubles the chance that the death penalty will be imposed [opens PDF].  Having just one black man on a capital jury cuts the chance of a death sentence in half [opens PDF].  In addition to the composition of the jury pool, the prejudice of jurors’ may also play a role in who gets the death penalty.

One study found that defendants who were perceived as looking more “stereotypically black” (i.e., having darker features) more than doubles the chances of being sentenced to death in capital cases involving white victims.

Our question for readers here: Do we – as a society – value the lives of black and white victims differently?

~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying the death penalty in Danielle Dirks’ “Capital Punishment in America” undergraduate course at University of Texas-Austin.  This is the first post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!


  1. Joe

    Actually, there is considerable research showing that elite white men, including elite white male managerrs and professionals (and other college educated whites) like lawyers, operate regularly out of the old white racial frame, with its central negative views of blacks, including black men. See, for example, our books White Men on Race, and Two Faced Racism.

  2. Jessie Author

    This is a frequent point made by the white nationalists / white supremacists – that blacks are often the assailants and of white victims. How do you counter the claim that blacks are simply more often the perpetrators of crimes against whites?

  3. jm

    It is not true that blacks are more often perpetrators of crimes against whites, especially when it comes to murder. Murder is more often than not an intraracial crime. According to the FBI, of murders where the race of the victim and the offender were known in 2008, 3,036 white offenders killed white victims, and 2,722 black offenders killed black victims. As far as interracial murder goes, 504 black offenders killed white victims, and 230 white offenders killed black victims. Therefore, even though the murder rate of blacks killing whites is higher than whites killing blacks, more offenders are killing persons of their own race. So, the point that blacks are often the assailants and of white victims does not hold to be true.

  4. Will

    To answer that question I would say yes. Society in general sees black lives as “bad” or “lesser than” whites. This is why this nation allows the so-called black-on-black crime and violence (sorry for using that term since it’s racist in itself) to go on at alarming rates. That’s why the media focuses on the lives of murdered and missing white women more than they do with murdered and missing black women. Other factors come into play that proves how much this country devalues black lives. Katrina helped expose this.

  5. marandaNJ

    I’ve repeatedly seen America much more sympathetic to the deaths of white citizens than black citizens. Look at the press Natalee Holloway’s disappearance received! Unbelievable! Everybody knows she got this attention because she was a pretty, blonde white girl from an affluent family.
    So when a black man/woman murders another black man/woman, both perpetrator and victim are de-valued. I also believe that white prosecuting attorneys seem to have more credibility with the general public than minority prosecuting attorneys. This is another reflection of the inherent racism in America.
    I do however believe in the death penalty in general, meted out Equally for All Races. Some First Degree Homocide perpetrators are fully aware of their crime, are not insane, have planned the murder meticulously, and should not be allowed to circulate within a society again. I have never read of life in prison rehabilitating these people and it does serve as a detriment to others contemplating like crimes. I also believe people who sexually abuse children [including Catholic priests!] should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    ‘During the temporary suspension on capital punishment from 1972-1976, researchers gathered murder statistics across the country. In 1960, there were 56 executions in the USA and 9,140 murders. By 1964, when there were only 15 executions, the number of murders had risen to 9,250. In 1969, there were no executions and 14,590 murders, and 1975, after six more years without executions, 20,510 murders occurred rising to 23,040 in 1980 after only two executions since 1976. In summary, between 1965 and 1980, the number of annual murders in the United States skyrocketed from 9,960 to 23,040, a 131 percent increase. The murder rate — homicides per 100,000 persons — doubled from 5.1 to 10.2. So the number of murders grew as the number of executions shrank. Researcher Karl Spence of Texas A&M University said:

    “While some [death penalty] abolitionists try to face down the results of their disastrous experiment and still argue to the contrary, the…[data] concludes that a substantial deterrent effect has been observed…In six months, more Americans are murdered than have killed by execution in this entire century…Until we begin to fight crime in earnest [by using the death penalty], every person who dies at a criminal’s hands is a victim of our inaction.”

    Notes Dudley Sharp of the criminal-justice reform group Justice For All:
    “From 1995 to 2000,” “executions averaged 71 per year, a 21,000 percent increase over the 1966-1980 period. The murder rate dropped from a high of 10.2 (per 100,000) in 1980 to 5.7 in 1999 — a 44 percent reduction. The murder rate is now at its lowest level since 1966. ”

    • Kristen

      I’m not sure about that deterrent argument by Karl Spence. The stats offered show murder rate trends but don’t prove any deterrent effect of the death penalty.

      And the only Karl Spence I can find online is a conservative journalist, not a researcher and not affiliated with Texas A&M University or any other academic institution. But that quote you gave is a popular one, repeated all over the Web and offered up in death penalty essays lazy college students can purchase.

    • Danielle D.

      MarandaNJ: Thanks so much for helping the students in my class by commenting on their posts.

      Just to clarify for RacismReview readers, Karl Spence was a college student at Texas A&M in the 1980s who wrote an opinion piece (there’s some question as to whether it was a class assignment or not). His paper, or rather–this quote–has made its rounds around the Internet thanks to bogus sites such as the one cited above and the myriad purchase-a-paper sites for college students (as Kristen points out below).

      Jessie’s work on cyber racism and “cloaked” websites featured here is useful in understanding the hundreds of death penalty sites set up to “help” students find “objective” information on the death penalty. These sites often have no real data, phony “researchers” with fancy degrees without granting institutions, fabricated “data,” or links to unrelated raw data that actually have nothing to do with the “analyses” provided. When actual data from more legitimate sources (e.g., Bureau of Justice Statistics) are used, data points are cherry picked to present bizarre “statistical” arguments that have no basis in reality.

      Conveniently though, these sites always point to the unequivocal deterrent impacts of executions or bias-only-exists-against-whites arguments. Of course it’s always a nice affirmation of who appreciates these sites when you find that the same text above is copied and pasted in the archived newsletters of the white supremacy group, Order of the White Knights.

      • marandaNJ

        @ Danielle:
        I don’t think that believing in capital punishment Equals racism. If that site was bogus, I was not aware of it. Many people think the death penalty is a deterrent to more crimes being committed. My belief does not make me a member of the Klu Klux Klan.
        Further, I already acknowledged the criminal justice system was biased Against Blacks. Don’t confuse racism with capital punishment. That’s like saying all people who believe in Obama’s Health Care Reform are Communists. Or, all people who think we should limit immigration are biased against Latinos. Non sequitor argument.

        • Danielle D.


          I apologize if my comments came across as accusative. I do not find it very useful to call people out for being racist so I apologize the last part of my comments could be read that way.

          I will say however that the links between racial animus and death penalty support are well-documented in the social science literature.

          From the work of James Unnever and Francis Cullen:

          “Racial animus is “one of the most salient and consistent predictors” of support for strict punishment for criminals. To the researchers, this suggests “a prominent reason for the American public’s punitiveness — including the embrace of mass imprisonment and the death penalty — is the belief that those disproportionately subject to these harsh sanctions are people they do not like: African Americans.””

          If you would like to read more, here are some additional links:


          Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2007a). Reassessing the racial divide in support for capital punishment: The continuing significance of race. Journal of Research in Crime and
          Delinquency, 44, 124-158.


          Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2007b). The racial divide in death penalty support: Does white racism matter? Social Forces, 85(3), 1281-1301.


  6. marandaNJ

    Edward Koch, former mayor of New York City, said:

    “Had the death penalty been a real possibility in the minds of…murderers, they might well have stayed their hand. They might have shown moral awareness before their victims died…Consider the tragic death of Rosa Velez, who happened to be home when a man named Luis Vera burglarized her apartment in Brooklyn. “Yeah, I shot her,” Vera admitted. “…and I knew I wouldn’t go to the chair.”
    More recently, a series of academic studies within the last six years show that the death penalty does indeed act as a deterrent to murder. These analysts count that between three and 18 lives would be saved by the execution of each convicted murderer. Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, co-authored a 2003 study and re-examined a 2006 study that found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. In an interview, he states:

    “Science does really draw a conclusion…There is no question about it. The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect. The results are robust. They don’t really go away. I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) – what am I going to do, hide them?”
    These studies are among a dozen papers since 2001 that the death penalty has a deterrent effect.They all look at executions and homicides by year and by state or county in order to figure out the impact of the death penalty on homicides by accounting for other factors, such as unemployment data and per capita income, the probabilities of arrest and conviction and more. Among these conclusions:
    Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five, and 14).

    I think the above data makes perfect sense. And there’s nothing racist about deterring crime using punishment if the punishment is doled out equitably among racial groups.

    • Danielle D.

      Thank you MarandaNJ and distance88 for participating in the students’ blog posts this week–we really appreciate it!

      You both raise interesting questions about the deterrent impacts of the death penalty. Scholars have debated these questions for half a century now, and it seems every time one study comes illustrating either side of this debate, another pops up immediately to refute it.

      The students in the class read the following that may be of help in following this most recent collection of studies on deterrence:

      Studies Say Death Penalty Deters Crime
      Stuart Tanner, The Washington Post (2007, June 11) available online at: http://tinyurl.com/studiesdeathpenaltydeterscrime

      A Death Penalty Puzzle: The Murky Evidence for and Against Deterrence Cass Sunstein and Justin Wolfers, The Washington Post (2008, June 30) available online at:

      Donohue, J. J., & Wolfers, J. (2006). The death penalty: No evidence for deterrence. The Economists’ Voice, 3(5), Article 3. available online at:

      Several studies since Dr. Mocan’s study have rejected his findings of a deterrent impact. From the Donohue and Wolfers (2006) article above, I have found their summaries helpful in questioning the usefulness of the death penalty to deter crime:

      a. When one considers all the evidence the empirical support for the proposition that the death penalty deters is at best weak and inconclusive.
      b. A subsequent re-analysis by Peter Passell and John Taylor showed that Ehrlich’s 1970s estimates were entirely driven by attributing a sharp jump in murders from 1963-69 to the post-1962 drop in executions.
      c. By the mid-1960s decline in homicide occurred across all states–including those that had never had the death penalty.
      d. The problem is simply that execution rates have varied too little over the last 30 years to admit any robust inference from data collected over this period.
      e. Executions are so rare and appeals so lengthy that it is not even clear that being sentenced to death reduces the life expectancy of a criminal (especially given the high risks of death on the street).
      f. In 2004 there were 16,137 homicides, and only 125 death sentences were handed out; of the 3,314 prisoners on death row, only 59 were executed.
      g. Four estimates for data period from 1934 – 2000 are: -1.5, -1.5, -1.7, -1.0 uniformly suggest no benefit from executions (an estimate of -1 implies that no murders were deterred and one life was lost by virtue of the execution).
      h. The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions.

  7. distance88

    I don’t know, maranda… We, as a country, don’t really have a history of “doling out punishment equally” racially, economically–any way you cut it. Not to mention the fact that new forensic technologies are increasingly absolving individuals accused of the most heinous of crimes–I would gladly trade the govt sanctioned deaths of a million guilty men (even if death is exactly what they deserve) for the freedom of one falsely-accused innocent.

  8. vp

    There are many studies that prove that the death penalty is racially biased. For example, data from the 1990s in California show that black defendants who killed white victims were 3.5 times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who killed black or Hispanic victims (http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/saclr46&div=8&id=&page=).

    There is also another study called “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment” by Scott Phillips. This can be found at (http://www.houstonlawreview.org/archive/downloads/45-3_pdf/45_3_04_Phillips.pdf). This is a study about racial disparities in Houston, Texas that shows “the odds of a death trial are 1.75 times higher against black defendants than white defendants.”


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