before it's in the papers"
August 03, 2010
TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE
“Black” features can sway jurors toward death penalty: study
and World Science staff
Male murderers with stereotypically “black-looking” features are more than twice as likely to be executed as lighter-skinned African-Americans convicted of killing a white person, researchers have found.
But this effect disappears when both murderers and their victims are black, the researchers said.
“Race clearly matters in criminal justice in ways in which people may or may not be consciously aware,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychologist at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., one of the researchers.
“When black defendants are accused of killing whites, perhaps jurors use the degree to which these defendants appear stereotypically black as a proxy for criminality, and then punish accordingly.”
The findings appear in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Past studies have found that murderers of white victims are more likely than murderers of black victims to be sentenced to death. Eberhardt said she wanted to learn whether stereotypes of blacks might affect sentencing in capital cases. She also was interested in whether the victim’s race would change the outcome.
“We thought there might be some effect there, but we didn’t know how strong it would be,” she said.
The study found that 57.5 percent of defendants rated by students to have “stereotypically black” features—broad noses, thick lips, dark skin and hair—were sentenced to death. This happened to only 24.4 percent of men rated as less stereotypically black.
The effect vanished in “black-on-black” capital cases: then, “there was no relationship between defendants’ physical appearances and the sentences they received,” Eberhardt said. “These results resonate with previous findings on race and the death penalty, which consistently show that defendants accused of killing white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those accused of killing blacks.”
In late 2004, scientists also reported that an apparently incurable form of racism is widespread, in which the prejudiced person doesn’t target blacks specifically. Rather, the person has more negative feelings for either blacks or whites who are seen as having features “typical” of blacks.
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