Study Finds Black Lives Don’t Matter to Capital Punishment System

February 25, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

A new study reiterates what activists, critics of our judicial system, and other researchers have been saying for years: there is a stark racial bias against black people — particularly black men — in America’s capital punishment system. While existing research supports this claim, new research by UNC professor Frank Baumgartner, PhD student Amanda Grigg and Georgetown law student Alisa Mastro (PDF) finds that the discrimination is worse than previously thought.

Looking through the 1,369 inmate executions between 1976 and 2013, they found that if a black person kills a white person, he is far more likely to be executed than a white person who kills a black person. They also found that prosecutors go for harder penalties against those who killed whites than those who killed blacks. The London School of Economics explains:

…prosecutors were more likely to charge killers of White victims with capital crimes (making them eligible for a death sentence) than killers of Blacks. Similarly the vast majority of studies of racial bias in the sentencing phase found that killers of Whites were more likely than killers of Blacks to receive a death sentence. Though these trends are not surprising given existing research, the vast range of time periods and geographic locations studied, control variables, and methods make the persistent finding of racial bias both striking and robust.

Compounding the damage to black lives is the finding that capital punishment is “very rarely used” when the victim is black male, “despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide,” the report says.

It gets worse. Though most of the inmates executed for homicide killed someone of their same race, executions for black people who killed white people were far more common than white people who killed blacks. In fact, “the bias is larger than had previously been estimated.” From LSE:

Despite the vast majority of homicides occurring within racial groups, there have been 230 executions for Black-on-White homicide. In fact twice as many Blacks have been executed for killing Whites (230) as have been executed for killing Blacks (108). Executions for White-on-Black homicide are far more rare, numbering only 17. The figure below offers a visual representation of the disparity among Blacks between percentage of all homicides that are intra-racial (an overwhelming majority) and the percentage of homicides resulting in execution that are intra-racial (a minority).

The paper is set to be published in journal Politics, Groups, and Identities.

(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)