Victim's race skews death penalty

Researchers: If you kill a white person in N.C., you're 3 times as likely to die.

Staff WriterJuly 23, 2010 

  • Years studied: 1980-2007

    Number of homicides: 15,281

    Number of death sentences: 368

    Odds of receiving death: 2.96 times higher when the victim was white

Someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina is nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty than someone accused of killing a black person, according to a study released Thursday by two researchers who looked at death sentences over a 28-year period.

The findings come as many in North Carolina are focusing on the death penalty and race. Death-row inmates have only a few more weeks to file challenges to their sentences under the Racial Justice Act approved by the legislature last year.

For the study, touted as one of the most comprehensive examinations to date of the modern administration of the death penalty in North Carolina, Michael L. Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Glenn L. Pierce, a research scientist in the Northeastern University school of criminology and criminal justice in Boston, examined 15,281 homicides in the state between Jan. 1, 1980, and Dec. 31, 2007. Of those, 368 resulted in death sentences.

The researchers looked at many factors, such as the number of victims and whether other crimes such as burglaries and robberies were committed during the homicide. They also tried to consider similar homicide cases.

Their analysis of the data showed that the odds of receiving a death sentence in cases where the victim was white were 2.96 times as high as the odds in cases with black victims.

"It's just kind of baffling that, in this day and age, race matters," Radelet said.

Jay Ferguson, a defense lawyer in Durham, said the study found what others have shown - that it's not so much the race of the defendant, but the race of the victim, that determines the punishment.

"I think, over the years, the white-victim cases seem to get more attention in the criminal justice system," Ferguson said. "They seem to get more attention from the district attorneys and the juries. The legislature has made it clear that if we're going to have a death penalty in North Carolina, it's got to be colorblind. And these studies show it's not."

At a standstill

Executions in North Carolina have been on hold for roughly three years. A push to stop doctors from assisting in executions, and a lawsuit filed by some death row inmates challenging the use of lethal injections as cruel and unusual punishment, have created a de facto moratorium.

And last summer, the legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, one of only two laws of its kind in the nation. The law allows judges, for the first time, to consider statistical evidence that suggests race was a key factor in prosecutors' seeking, or a court's imposing, the death penalty on a disproportionate number of people from a racial group.

Current death row inmates have until Aug. 10 to file their challenges.

Ammo for critics

The study released Thursday will help bolster the case of death penalty critics, who for years have complained that capital punishment is applied with bias, intentional or not.

"This definitely vindicates the legislature's passing of the Racial Justice Act," said Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. "Studies like this all point in the same direction. They point to race discrimination in the South."

Not just N.C.

Radelet, who has studied the administration of the death penalty in 10 states, including Florida, California and Nebraska, said the findings about North Carolina tended to mirror findings from most other states. In Florida, he said, the odds were slightly higher that a person accused of killing a white person would get the death penalty compared to cases when the victim was black. In Nebraska, though, the odds were lower.

"It turns out the racial biases tend to be lower where there are not as many death sentences," Radelet said.

Prosecutor: No bias

Seth Edwards, a prosecutor in Martin, Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde and Beaufort counties who took over this month as president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said after a brief review of the study that prosecutors consider many factors when deciding whether to pursue a capital homicide case.

"I strongly disagree with the implication that prosecutors base their decision to seek the ultimate punishment on the race of the victim or the defendant," Edwards said in an e-mail message. "Prosecutors do not look at skin color. We consider lots of things, but race is not one of them."

Radelet and Pierce, the study authors, encouraged "continuous monitoring of the death penalty in North Carolina to see if patterns of racial bias change."

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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