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At sentencing, some murder victims “matter” more than others

March 8, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Denver
and World Science staff

A de­fend­ant is much more likely to get a death sen­tence if he or she kills a “high-sta­tus” vic­tim than if not, a study re­ports. The find­ing is based on a sur­vey of 504 death pen­al­ty cases in Tex­as, the state with the high­est rate of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in the Un­ited States.

“In the cap­i­tal of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, death is more apt to be sought and im­posed on be­half of high-sta­tus vic­tims. Some vic­tims mat­ter more than oth­ers,” said Uni­vers­ity of Den­ver so­ci­ol­o­gist and crim­i­nol­o­gist Scott Phil­lips, au­thor of the stu­dy.

The work ap­pears in the re­search jour­nal Law and So­ci­e­ty Re­view.

Phil­lips, who an­a­lyzed death pen­al­ty cases from 1992 to 1999, found that a death sen­tence is most likely if a de­fend­ant kills a mar­ried, white or His­pan­ic vic­tim with a clean crim­i­nal rec­ord and a col­lege de­gree, as op­posed to a sin­gle, black or Asian vic­tim with a crim­i­nal rec­ord and no col­lege de­gree.

The study is based on cases in Har­ris Coun­ty, which is the state’s most pop­u­lous coun­ty and al­so en­com­passes its larg­est city, Hous­ton.

While re­cent de­bates over the death pen­al­ty have tended to fo­cus on the prob­lem of con­vict­ing the in­no­cent and on costs, Phil­lips said ar­bi­trar­i­ness has long been a con­cern. 

Draw­ing on the same da­ta, Phil­lips’ pre­vi­ous re­search found that black de­fend­ants were more likely to be sen­tenced to death than white de­fend­ants. The ra­cial dis­par­i­ties de­scribed in the pri­or pa­per be­come even sharp­er af­ter ac­count­ing for vic­tim so­cial sta­tus – black de­fend­ants were more apt to be sen­tenced to death de­spite be­ing less apt to kill high sta­tus vic­tims, Phil­lips said.


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A defendant is much more likely to receive a death sentence if he or she kills a “high-status” victim, a study claims. The finding is based on a survey of 504 death penalty cases in Texas, the state with the highest rate of capital punishment in the United States. “In the capital of capital punishment, death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high-status victims. Some victims matter more than others,” said University of Denver sociologist and criminologist Scott Phillips, author of the study. The work appears in the research journal Law and Society Review. Phillips, who analyzed death penalty cases from 1992 to 1999, found that a death sentence is most likely if a defendant kills a married, white or Hispanic victim with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a single, black or Asian victim with a criminal record and no college degree. The study is based on cases in Harris County, which is the state’s most populous county and also encompasses its largest city, Houston. While recent debates over the death penalty have tended to focus on the problem of convicting the innocent and on costs, Phillips said arbitrariness has long been a concern. Drawing on the same data, Phillips’ previous research found that black defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. The racial disparities described in the prior paper become even sharper after accounting for victim social status – black defendants were more apt to be sentenced to death despite being less apt to kill high status victims, Phillips said.