Academics and Research

New study shows race influences death penalty cases

New research by Scott Phillips, DU associate professor of sociology and criminology, delves into racial disparities in death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas. The research, recently featured in The New York Times, suggests that the district attorney was more likely to pursue the death penalty against black defendants and on behalf of white victims.

The study, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” will be published in theHouston Law Review this fall.

“Conventional wisdom holds that the race of the victim is pivotal,” Phillips says. “But, current research suggests that the race of the defendant and victim are both pivotal.”

Phillips studied whether race influenced the district attorney’s decision to pursue a death trial or the jury’s decision to impose a death sentence against defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County, located in the Houston area. He spent several years looking at more than 500 capital murder cases that occurred from 1992–99.

“Harris County is the capital of capital punishment,” Phillips says. “If Harris County were a state it would rank second in executions after Texas.”

While Phillips’ research shows a clear racial disparity in the district attorney’s decision to seek the death penalty, the professor is not accusing the district attorney at the time, John Holmes Jr., of being racist.

The office has a long-standing practice of removing the race of parties from the memo that the district attorney uses to decide whether to seek death.

“Discrimination implies purposeful action,” Phillips says. “I am certain that the Harris County D.A. does not intend for race to influence the process. Nonetheless, it appears that it does.”

In fact, the percentage distribution suggests that the district attorney sought the death penalty against black and Caucasian defendants at the same rate. However, the racial disparity is found when looking at the nature of the crime because black defendants committed murders that were less serious, according to objective measures. After controlling for the nature of the crime, the findings demonstrate that the odds of the district attorney pursuing a death penalty trial were 1.75 times higher against black defendants than Caucasian defendants.

“To impose equal punishment against unequal crimes is to impose unequal punishment,” Phillips says.

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