Death Penalty Sentencing: Research Indicates Pattern of Racial Disparities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-05-03.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                        United States General Accounting                    Office

 For   Release          DEATE       PENALTY          SENTENCING:
 on Delivery            Research             Indicates      Pattern
 Expected      at
 1O:OO a.m.       EST   of   Racial           Disparities
 May     3,   1990

                        Statement          of
                        Lowell         Dodge
                        Director,          Administration             of      Justice       Issues

                        Before         the
                        Subcommittee     on Civil         and              Constitutional            Rights
                        Committee    on the     Judiciary
                        u. s.   HOUSe of   Representatives

                                                                                              GAO Form 160 (12/W)
Mr. Chairman                and members of the Committee:

Thank you for                   inviting         us to discuss           our GAO report,                Death
Penalty       Sentencing:                     Research       Indicates          Pattern      of Racial
Disparities.1                    The Anti-Drug              Abuse Act        of 1988 (Public              Law lOO-
690) mandated                   that     GAO study          capital      sentencing          procedures            to
determine           if      the        race     of either       the    victim        or the defendant
influences               the     likelihood          that      defendants         will      be sentenced            to
death.        To fulfill                 this     requirement          we did        an evaluation
synthesis--              a critical             review      and integration              of existing           research
on the      subject.                   This     approach       was feasible           because         a substantial
body of       research                 was already          completed        on this        topic.

The first           step         in the synthesis               process       was to identify                and
collect       all         potentially             relevant        studies        from both           published          and
unpublished               sources.              Our search        included        culling       computerized
bibliographies                   and citations              in studies        that       we obtained,            and a
survey      of researchers                      known to be working               in the       field.

We   screened             more than             200 citations          for      relevance       and obtained
53 studies               that     met our criteria.                   We included           studies       based
primarily           on post-Furman                  (1972)      data     which       examined         race     as a

1Death      Penalty Sentencing:   Research Indicates   Pattern                                            of
Racial      Disparities.   GAO/GGD-90-57 February,   1990
factor       that     might        influence          death      penalty         sentencing.2              After
reviewing           these      studies,        we excluded              those     that     did     not     include
empirical           data     or were duplicative.                       Twenty-eight             studies

Next,      we rated          each of the           28 studies             in terms       of the quality              of
research.            We considered             five         dimensions--design,               sampling,
measurement,            data       collection,              and analysis.            Two social            science
analysts        rated        each study           independently.                 A third      analyst
reviewed        the raters'            assessments              to ensure         consistency.              Also,     a
statistician               reviewed       those       studies          that     used advanced            analytic
techniques           to make sure           they       had been used and interpreted

Our reviewers               also    recorded          all     relevant          information          on the
relationship            of race        to death             penalty       sentencing        from each of
the      studies.

Description           of the Studies
The studies           we reviewed           covered           different          time    periods         until
1988.        They included             many states              that      have the death            penalty         and
spanned        the geographic              regions           of the country.

21n Furman v. Georgia,        408 U.S. 238 (19721, the Supreme Court
found unconstitutional       death sentences     imposed under state
statutes    which allowed juries       to impose these sentences     in an
arbitrary    or capricious     manner.    In response to this decision,
states    adopted new statutes     that addressed the concerns raised
by the Court.
We rated            about      half      of     the studies           as high         or medium quality;                         the
remainder            were rated               as low.       We judged          a study                 to be high
quality        if     it:

--     was characterized                      by a sound design               that         analyzed          homicide
       cases        throughout           the sentencing              process;
--     included         legally          relevant         variables           (aggravating                  and
       mitigating            circumstances);                and
--     used statistical                  techniques          to control              for         factors       that
       correlate    with              race      and/or     capital           sentencing.

We identified                three       major        limitations         among these                   studies.               One
is     known in the             research          community          as sample                  selection         bias.
Sample selection                  bias        would      be present           here         if     the cases           under
consideration                are not          representative            of all         the cases               of
interest.             Race may influence                   decisions           at one or more of                       the
various        stages          in the criminal               justice          process.                 A study        that
considered            only      whether          persons       convicted             of murder              were

sentenced           to death           will      not measure           the     disparities                  in treatment
that      may have occurred                    at earlier           points       in the process.

A second        limitation              was the problem                of omitted                 variables.              If
all      relevant           variables          were not        included         in the analysis                       the
effect       of race          could       be overestimated.                    Only a few variables                            have
been shown to be highly                          explanatory           and these                 are    included          in the
better      quality           studies.

A third        limitation             related        to     the consequences                    of    the small
sample        sizes        in the analyses                of death             penalty      imposition.                Since
imposition            of      the death          penalty          is a relatively                rare       event,         the
statistical             analysis         of differences                   at    this     stage        is    limited
because        of     small        sample        sizes.

Our synthesis                 of the 28 studies                   showed a pattern                   of evidence
indicating            racial        disparities             in the charging,                    sentencing,            and
imposition            of the death               penalty.

In 82 percent,                 or 23 of the            28 studies,               race     of victim           was found
to correlate               with     being        charged          with     capital        murder           or receiving
the death            penalty.          This       finding          was remarkably                consistent            across
data      sets,       states,        data        collection              techniques         and quality               of

Although            a race        of victim         influence             was found         in all          stages         of
the      judicial          process       across        the studies,                the    evidence           of race            of
victim        influence            was stronger             for      earlier           stages        in the     judicial
process         (e.g.         prosecutorial           decision             to charge            defendant          with         a
capital        offense,            decision         to proceed             to trial         rather          than      plea
bargain)            than      at later        stages.             This     is because            the earlier
stages        were comprised                of    larger          samples        allowing            for    more
rigorous            analyses.

Legally        relevant           variables,              such as aggravating                       circumstances,
were influential                  but did           not     fully         explain         the racial
disparities              researchers           found.               In the higher              quality         studies
researchers              controlled           for     legally             relevant         factors          such as
prior       criminal         record          or heinousness                  of     the crime          and still
found       that     differences              remained              in the        likelihood          of receiving
the death           penalty         based on the               race         of    the victim.

The influence              of the       race         of    the defendant                  on death          penalty
outcomes           was equivocal.                   Although          slightly           more than           half       of   the
studies        found       the      race      of defendant                  influenced          the        likelihood         of
being       charged        with       a capital            crime          or receiving              the death
penalty,           the    relationship               between          race        and     outcome          was complex.
For example,              one study           found         that,         while      in rural          areas        black
defendants           were more likely                     to receive              death      sentences,             in urban
areas       white        defendants           received              death        sentences          more often.

Finally,           more than          three-fourths                  of     the studies             that     found       a
race       of defendant             effect          found      that         black       defendants           were more
likely       to receive             the death             penalty.               The remaining              studies,
however,           found     that      white         defendants              were more likely                  to be
sentenced           to death.

In summary,           we found     studies      of    sufficient        quality       to support      the
use of an evaluation               synthesis         approach       to assess        the
relationship           between     race      and death      penalty          sentencing.       The
results      show a strong          race      of victim         influence:         the death
penalty      sentence       was more likely             to be sought           and imposed      for   an
offender       if     the victim      was white.          The race           of offender    influence
is not      as clear,       and    varies      across     a number of dimensions.

This      concludes       my comments.          I would      be happy          to answer   any
questions           concerning     our work.