Race and the Death Penalty

The relationship between race of the victim and race of the alleged perpetrator in capital cases has been noted before, but this new study confirms it using laboratory psychological methods. From Cornell Online:

The study, “Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes,” is the first to examine whether death sentences are influenced by juries’ perceptions of defendants’ features as stereotypically black. The results are published in the May issue of Psychological Science.

The researchers include Cornell law Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, associate director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, who provided the legal expertise; lead researcher Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University; and co-authors Paul Davies, professor of social psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles, and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University.

The researchers obtained photographs of 44 black, male defendants convicted of murdering whites between 1979 and 1999 in Pennsylvania, a state that has the death penalty. Stanford undergraduates of various ethnicities were shown the photographs and asked to report whether the men’s appearance seemed stereotypically black on a scale of 1 to 11. They were told they could base their judgments on any number of features, including hair texture, skin tone and shape of lips and noses. They were not told the purpose of the study or that the men had been convicted of capital crimes.

The study’s authors then correlated the responses with the actual sentences received by the defendants in the photographs to determine whether perceptions of stereotypical racial features influenced death-penalty decisions.

The results showed that, controlling for other relevant variables, 58 percent of the convicts rated as having stereotypically black features had been sentenced to death. In contrast, only 24 percent of those convicts rated as having less-stereotypically black features had received death sentences.