Study of Death Penalty in North Carolina Shows That 'Race Matters'

Jul 22, 2010
Michael Radelet

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study examining death sentences in North Carolina over a 28-year period ending in 2007 shows that among similar homicides, the odds of a death sentence for those who are suspected of killing whites are approximately three times higher than the odds of a death sentence for those suspected of killing blacks.

The study, to be published in The North Carolina Law Review next year, was conducted by Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Glenn Pierce, a research scientist in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. It is the most comprehensive study of the modern administration of the death penalty in North Carolina to date.

"It's just kind of baffling that in this day and age -- race matters," said Radelet, one of the nation's leading experts on the death penalty.

One of the top states to use the death penalty over the past 30 years, North Carolina has one of the nation's largest death rows with 155 men and four women facing execution.

And with its passage of the Racial Justice Act last year, North Carolina became the second state in the nation after Kentucky to allow murder suspects and those already on death row to present statistical evidence of racial bias. The law is aimed at ensuring that the race of the defendant or victim doesn't play a key role in the sentence a person receives in death penalty cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that statistical evidence of racial bias could not be considered in individual cases, but that states could pass their own legislation to do so. The study by Radelet and Pierce is the first to be released since North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act.

Radelet and Pierce examined 15,281 in North Carolina between 1980 and 2007, of which 368 resulted in death sentences for those convicted.

Using Supplemental Homicide Reports from the FBI, as well as other records from the North Carolina Department of Correction and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the authors obtained information on all death row cases in which the victim was either black or white. The other 16 cases were eliminated.

The authors also looked for any additional factors -- such as multiple victims or homicides accompanied by an additional felony, such as rape or robbery -- that might explain the disparity in death penalty sentencing. These additional factors partially explained death penalty decisions, but even after statistically controlling for their effect, race remained an important predictor of who was sentenced to death.

An examination of these factors "show that the reason why the probability of a death sentence is higher for those who are suspected of killing whites than for those who are suspected of killing blacks is not because the former cases tend to be more aggravated," the authors wrote. "Regardless of whether there are zero, one or two additional legally relevant factors present, cases with white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than are cases with black victims."

Specifically, the study found that the odds of receiving a death sentence in North Carolina "in a white victim case are on average 2.96 times higher than are the odds of a death sentence in a black victim case." The finding is statistically significant and the probability of obtaining a similar result if racial bias were not an option is less than 5 percent, according to the authors.

"Given these findings the authors would advocate continuous monitoring of the death penalty in North Carolina to see if patterns of change," Radelet said.

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder, According to New Study

Jun 17, 2009

Eighty-eight percent of the country's top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to a new study published today in Northwestern University School of Law's Journal of Criminal ...

It's who you kill that matters, according to new research

Mar 05, 2010

A defendant is much more likely to be sentenced to death if he or she kills a "high-status" victim, according to new research by Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver ...

'Black looking' features may affect juries

May 25, 2006

A study suggests men with ''black-looking'' features are more likely to get a U.S. death sentence than other people found guilty of killing a white person.

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.