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July 30, 2007
New Sociological Study Shows Blacks Who Kill Whites
Are Most Likely to Be Executed
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Blacks convicted of killing whites are not only more likely
than other killers to receive a death sentence – they are also more likely to
actually be executed, a new study suggests.
But the findings showed that
African Americans on death row for killing nonwhites are less likely to be
executed than other condemned prisoners.
“Examining who survives on death
row is important because less than 10 percent of those given the death sentence
ever get executed,” said David Jacobs, co-author of the study and professor of
sociology at Ohio State University.
“The disparity in execution rates based
on the race of victims suggests our justice system places greater value on white
lives, even after sentences are handed down.”
This apparently is the
first study to examine whether the race of murder victims affects the
probability that a convicted killer gets the ultimate punishment, Jacobs
He conducted the study with Zhenchao Qian, professor of sociology
at Ohio State, Jason Carmichael of McGill University and Stephanie Kent of
Cleveland State University. Their results appear in the August 2007 issue of the
American Sociological Review.
The study examined outcomes of 1,560 people
sentenced to death in 16 states from 1973 to 2002. These 16 states were chosen
because they had the complete data that the researchers needed for the
Other research has shown that the great majority of those
sentenced to death have their sentences overturned in appeal, Jacobs said. But
little is known about the factors that lead some condemned prisons to be
There is more than a two-fold greater risk that an African
American who killed a white person will be executed than there is for a white
person who killed a non-white victim.
“The fact that blacks who kill
non-whites actually are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites
shows there is a strong racial bias here,” Jacobs said. “Blacks are most likely
to pay the ultimate price when their victims are white.”
Hispanics who killed
whites were also more likely to be executed than were whites who killed
non-whites, the study showed. But the risks of execution were not as strong for
Hispanics who killed whites as they were for blacks who killed
The study also reinforced findings by Jacobs in previous studies.
He found that the likelihood of a legal death penalty was greater in states with
higher proportions of black residents, an ideologically more conservative
population, and in states where there was greater support for Republican
In the most recent study, Jacobs finds that execution
probabilities increase in states along with the population of African Americans,
up to a point. But when the population of blacks reaches about 16 percent of the
population, executions start to decrease. Probably at that point, African
Americans have enough votes and political influence within a state to reduce the
number of executions, Jacobs said.
Various other political and
state-level factors also played a role in the use of the death penalty in the
states studied. States with more conservative citizens were more likely to
execute, as were states that had higher percentages of voters who supported
Republican presidential candidates.
“Republican presidential candidates
often run on law and order platforms, so it is not surprising that the success
of these candidates goes along with support for the harshest punishment,” he
“Overall, we found that our justice system is not colorblind, even
after offenders are put on death row,” Jacobs said. “White lives are still
valued more than black ones when it comes to deciding who gets executed and who
The study was supported by a grant from the National Science
About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org),
founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to
serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science
and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.