Study examines racial bias in death-penalty decisions

Study examines racial bias in death-penalty decisions
Cynthia Willis-Esqueda. Credit: Troy Fedderson, University Communications

A Latino defendant convicted of murder who is poor is more likely to be sentenced to death by white jurors, a new study shows.

The study was conducted by UNL psychology and ethnic studies professor Cynthia Willis-Esqueda and her colleague, Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University, Fullerton, who earned his doctorate at UNL.

More than 500 white and Latino people called for jury duty in a southern California courthouse participated in the research, and they were asked how they would decide a hypothetical murder case.

Based on an actual incident in which a man was sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife and her friend, the circumstances of the case were altered by researchers to create eight different scenarios depending upon whether the defendant was white or Latino; whether he was rich or poor; and whether mitigation evidence was strong or weak. Each mock juror reviewed one hypothetical situation.

Published online this week in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, the study found that white jurors were more likely to impose the penalty in cases where the defendant was Latino and poor. They were most likely to impose it if a Latino defendant of low socio-economic status had few mitigating circumstances.

"If the defendant was of low socio-economic status and Mexican-American, he received the death penalty more often, compared to other conditions," Willis-Esqueda said. "We were really saddened by that. They could have chosen an alternative sentence, such as life in prison without possibility of parole."

Latino mock jurors did not show the same strong correlation between ethnicity and socio-economic status when they imposed the .

The researchers described their findings as a form of "aversive racism." That is an indirect form of bias in which people realize it's offensive to judge someone by their skin color and use other reasons to reach a biased decision.

The researchers said the study has important implications for the criminal justice system. It makes it even more important for defense attorneys to submit mitigating evidence on behalf of Latino defendants. It also raises questions whether potential jurors should be educated about ethnic biases in decision-making.

"Perhaps the introduction of the history of bias toward Latinos in the legal system is warranted," they wrote.

The study participants, who were interviewed after they had been dismissed from an actual jury pool, were given mock court documents describing the crime, including a small mug shot of either a white or Latino defendant. The photos were pre-screened to ensure they did not differ significantly in terms of attractiveness, aggressiveness or apparent income status. The case included overwhelming evidence of the mock defendant's guilt. In half the cases, the defendant was described as high —a college graduate and business owner who lives in four-bedroom home in the suburbs and who drives a Mercedes. In the other half, the defendant was described as an unemployed high school drop-out who is behind on his rent at his boarding house.

Half the hypothetical cases included strong evidence of mitigating circumstances that might lessen the defendant's culpability for the crime—he was a victim of child abuse, had been in and out of group homes as a child, and had suffered from various mental problems. In the other half, the defendant had weak mitigating evidence—he was said only to have suffered a bout of depression at the time of the crime.

All of the mock jurors were "death-qualified," meaning they had to be willing to impose a death sentence before they could participate in the study.

The white jurors sentenced about half of Latino defendants with weak mitigating evidence or low socio-economic status to death. They sentenced about one third of European American defendants with to death and about one-fourth of European-American defendants with weak mitigating circumstances to death. They were more likely to find low socioeconomic Latino defendants to be vicious, intentional and more to blame for the crime.

Latino jurors, however, imposed the only about one in four times, regardless of the ' ethnicity, socioeconomic status or mitigating evidence.

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Sep 03, 2014
Ms. Willis-Esqueda has quite a grin on for someone who supposedly discovered a systematic, "undeserved" disadvantage for Hispanics in the court system. Or is it because she succeeded in putting out a fraudulent "study" that paved the way for a lucrative job "educating" whites in "diversity? Notice how carefully imprecisely white jurors are said to impose the death penalty for Hispanics than whites. How much more often? And do Hispanics apply it less often to other Hispanics because they are not "bigoted" or because they won't rat out another Hispanic, even if they're guilty? And they don't judge against whites because they know how it would look. And, maybe, Hispanics are just more tolerant of killing those they know.

Sep 03, 2014
Any "ethnic studies professor" is going to be bias against whites, by definition and purpose.

Worse, they fraudulently imply a systemic racism in "white society",.... all the while ignoring that certain minority cultures produce criminals disproportionately high given their population. For example, blacks commit over 50% of murders, yet only occupy 13% of the population,... that's an 8 time higher murder rate than whites.

The above study and others like it, also attempt to fraudulently imply that the disproportionately high minority prison population is due to "systemic racism", ....rather than a failed anti-white separatist subculture, that produces generations of criminals and welfare recipients. It's simply easier to blame whitely than deal with your own cultural problems.


Sep 03, 2014
... The recent "michael brown' killing in the USA is also testament to this racist desire to blame whitey; Mass outrage, protesting and rioting, over the rare event that a white cop wrongly shoots a black criminal thug,..... but no such concerted outrage over the crisis levels of black on black crime in cities like Chicago, where a dozen are shot each weekend.

"It's impossible to wake a person pretending to be asleep" - Navajo Proverb

Sep 03, 2014
^ racist above this post ^

Sep 03, 2014
^ racist above this post ^

What have I posted that would lead you to make that false charge? I feel zero ill will toward anyone. You're just another liberal fraud who dilutes that term by tossing it around freely without rationality.

Sep 03, 2014
Studies have been looking at racial bias in sentencing for 50-60-70 years. Anything new the USSC hasn't heard ad nauseam.?

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