Death Penalty

Execution rate is 17 times greater for killers of white rather than Black victims, study says

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Killers of white people are executed at a rate 17 times greater than killers of Black victims, according to a new study building on the work of a law professor who analyzed racial disparities in the Georgia death penalty.

The new study, published in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, combined Georgia death sentence data studied by University of Iowa law professor David Baldus with information on actual executions carried out. The New York Times has coverage.

The new study found that 22 out of 972 defendants convicted of killing a white victim in Baldus’ study were ultimately executed, but only two out of 1,503 defendants convicted of killing a Black victim were put to death.

“Thus, the overall execution rate is a staggering 17 times greater for defendants convicted of killing a white victim,” write the authors of the new study, professor Scott Phillips and law professor Justin Marceau of the University of Denver.

Phillips and Marceau say the new data is important because a 1976 Supreme Court decision upholding Georgia’s death penalty downplayed racial disparities by emphasizing the role of appellate review. The new research “shows that post-sentencing proceedings exacerbate, rather than remediate, the problems of arbitrariness,” the authors write.

Baldus, who died in 2011, had analyzed sentencing in more than 2,000 murders in Georgia from 1973 to 1979. He found that killers of white victims were four times more likely receive a death sentence that killers of Black victims. He did not analyze how many executions were actually carried out because so much time passes between sentencing and execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered Baldus’ findings in McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 decision that found the death penalty is constitutional despite statistical disparities in the system.

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