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Blacks who kill whites most likely to be executed, study finds

July 30, 2007
Courtesy Ohio State University
and World Science staff

In the United States, blacks con­victed of kill­ing whites are not only more likely than oth­er kill­ers to get a death sen­tence—they’re al­so like­li­er to ac­tu­ally be ex­e­cut­ed, a new study sug­gests.

The chances of be­ing con­demned and of be­ing put to death are quite dif­fer­ent, as “less than 10 per­cent of those giv­en the death sen­tence ev­er get ex­e­cut­ed,” said Da­vid Ja­cobs, co-author of the study. Most of the oth­ers have their sen­tences over­turned on ap­peal, he ex­plained.

Ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber in San Quen­tin State Pris­on, Ca­lif., where death row in­mates die by le­thal in­jec­tion. (Im­age cour­te­sy Ca­lif. Dept. of Cor­rec­tions & Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion)


The new finding “sug­gests our jus­tice sys­tem places great­er val­ue on white lives, even af­ter sen­tences are hand­ed down,” added Ja­cobs, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Ohio State Un­ivers­ity in Co­lum­bus, Ohio. 

This ap­par­ently is the first study to ex­am­ine wheth­er the race of mur­der vic­tims af­fects the prob­a­bil­ity that a con­victed kill­er gets the ul­ti­mate pun­ish­ment, Ja­cobs said. 

The find­ings ap­pear in the Au­gust is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Amer­i­can So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal Re­view. The study ex­am­ined out­comes of 1,560 peo­ple sen­tenced to death in 16 states from 1973 to 2002. These 16 states were cho­sen be­cause they had the com­plete da­ta that the re­search­ers needed for the stu­dy. 

A black who killed a white per­son has twice the risk of be­ing ex­e­cut­ed than a white per­son who killed a non-white, he said. “The fact that blacks who kill non-whites ac­tu­ally are less likely to be ex­e­cut­ed than blacks who kill whites shows there is a strong ra­cial bi­as here,” Ja­cobs said. “Blacks are most likely to pay the ul­ti­mate price when their vic­tims are white.” 

His­pan­ics who killed whites were al­so more likely to be ex­e­cut­ed than were whites who killed non-whites, the study found. But the risk of ex­e­cu­tion was not as strong for His­pan­ics who killed whites as they were for blacks who killed whites.

The study al­so re­in­forced pre­vi­ous find­ings by Ja­cobs that the like­li­hood of a le­gal death pen­al­ty was great­er in states with high­er pro­por­tions of black res­i­dents, an ide­o­log­ic­ally more con­serv­a­tive popula­t­ion, and in states where there was great­er sup­port for Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates. 

In the new re­search, Ja­cobs found that ex­e­cu­tion prob­a­bil­i­ties in­crease in states along with the popula­t­ion of Af­ri­can Amer­i­cans, up to a point. But when the popula­t­ion of blacks reaches about 16 per­cent of the popula­t­ion, ex­e­cu­tions start to de­crease. Probably at that point, Af­ri­can-Amer­i­cans have enough votes and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence with­in a state to re­duce the num­ber of ex­e­cu­tions, Ja­cobs said.


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Blacks convicted of killing whites are not only more likely than other killers to get a death sentence—they’re also likelier to actually be executed, a new study suggests. The chances of being condemned and of being actually executed are quite different, as “less than 10 percent of those given the death sentence ever get executed,” said David Jacobs, co-author of the study and a sociologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Most of the others have their sentences overturned on appeal, he added. “The disparity in execution rates based on the race of victims suggests our justice system places greater value on white lives, even after sentences are handed down.” This apparently is the first study to examine whether the race of murder victims affects the probability that a convicted killer gets the ultimate punishment, Jacobs said. The findings appear in the August 2007 issue of the research journal American Sociological Review. The study examined outcomes of 1,560 people sentenced to death in 16 states from 1973 to 2002. These 16 states were chosen because they had the complete data that the researchers needed for the study. A black who killed a white person has twice the risk of being executed of a white person who killed a non-white victim, he said. “The fact that blacks who kill non-whites actually are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites shows there is a strong racial bias here,” Jacobs said. “Blacks are most likely to pay the ultimate price when their victims are white.” Hispanics who killed whites were also more likely to be executed than were whites who killed non-whites, the study found. But the risk of execution were not as strong for Hispanics who killed whites as they were for blacks who killed whites. The study also reinforced previous findings by Jacobs that the likelihood of a legal death penalty was greater in states with higher proportions of black residents, an ideologically more conservative population, and in states where there was greater support for Republican candidates. In the new research, Jacobs found that execution probabilities increase in states along with the population of African Americans, up to a point. But when the population of blacks reaches about 16 percent of the population, executions start to decrease. Probably at that point, African Americans have enough votes and political influence within a state to reduce the number of executions, Jacobs said.