Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1-2005

Keywords

Death penalty, Capital punishment, Death row populations, Racial hierarchy in death sentence rates, Empirical legal studies, Death row demography

Disciplines

Applied Statistics | Criminal Law | Law and Society

Abstract

The number of murders in a state largely determines the size of a state's death row. The more murders, the larger the death row. This fundamental relation yields surprising results, including the newsworthy finding that Texas's death sentencing rate is not unusually high. Recent state-level research also underscores the importance of race in the demography of death row. Death penalty research has long emphasized race's role, and with good reason--a racial hierarchy exists in death sentence rates. Black defendants who murder white victims receive death sentences at the highest rate; white defendants who murder white victims receive death sentences at the next highest rate, and black defendants who murder black victims receive death sentences at the lowest rate. Two race-based tendencies appear to foster this hierarchy: prosecutors' reluctance to seek or impose death in cases involving black defendants and black victims, and their eagerness to do so in cases involving black defendants and white victims. County-level analysis should help further illuminate death row's demography. Prosecutors who decide whether to seek the death penalty, and jurors who decide whether to impose it, are selected at the local, usually county, level. This Article explores the factors that may affect counties' contributions to death row.

This Article finds that, in addition to the number of murders, at least three other demographic factors influence the death sentence rate at the county level. The rate of death sentences decreases as a county's black population percent increases, as a county's per capita income increases, and as a county's homicide rate increases. More detailed study of black defendant-black victim cases suggests that the population percent effect is not merely an artifact of such cases comprising a higher portion of murders in minority communities. Even within the class of black defendant-black victim murder cases, the death sentence rate decreases as a county's black population percent increases.

Publication Citation

Published in: Cornell Law Review, vol. 90, no. 2 (January 2005).