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Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing

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A new study of capital sentences handed down in first degree murder cases finds evidence of racial bias against minority defendants who killed white victims. The study (abstract here; pdf here) was conducted by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara of Universita’ Bocconi. It finds that for sentences handed down to minority defendants convicted of killing white victims were as much as 9 percent more likely to be reversed than in cases involving a minority defendant killing a minority victim. The study examined the race of the defendant and of the victim(s) for all capital appeals that be came final in the U.S. between 1973 and 1995.
To reach their conclusions, the authors exploited a peculiar feature of the capital sentencing process in the U.S.: that all first degree capital sentences are automatically appealed. They then focused on errors reversed by higher courts, pinning their results on the assumption that superior courts can only improve on the accuracy of first sentencing and therefore remove part or all racial bias.
A summary of their results:

When we implement our test we find results consistent with the presence of racial prejudice: ceteris paribus, first degree courts are more severe (i.e., they tend to give more death sentences which are then reversed) against cases involving a minority defendant killing one or more white victims. This result holds strong both for the cases that reach the final stage of revisions and appeal, the Habeas Corpus stage in Federal Courts, and for the full sample of cases in the first appeal stage, called Direct Appeal. For Habeas Corpus cases involving a minority defendant, the error rate was 37.5 percent if the victim was white, and 28.4 percent if it was not white, with a statistically significant difference of 9 percentage points. For cases involving a white defendant the di§erence indicates higher reversal rates when the victim is non-white, but it is not significant. In the Direct Appeal sample, cases involving a minority defendant had an error rate of 37.7 percent if the victim was white and 34.7 percent if the victim was a minority, with a statistically significant difference of 3 percentage points. In cases involving a white defendant the difference is again in the opposite direction and not significant. This pattern of results is consistent with racial bias according to our rank order test.

Not surprisingly, results differed by region.

When we disaggregate the results by region, we find that the effect is driven by Southern States. The difference in error rates in these States is large: in Habeas Corpus cases, the error rate is 15:5 percentage points higher for minority defendants with white victims as compared to minority defendants with non-white victims (p-value :01): For the Direct Appeal sample the corresponding difference is 3:3 percentage points (p-value :13).