NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Myth Of Racism In Death Penalty

November 19, 1998

Despite the claims of death penalty opponents, there is little evidence that biased prosecutors are more zealous about seeking the death penalty against African-Americans, say legal observers, or that juries are sending blacks to death row more often.

The evidence indicates black murder defendants are no more likely to get death sentences than are whites, although at the end of 1996, 42 percent of death row inmates were African-Americans.

  • That is because in 43.2 percent of violent crime cases in 1996, and 54.9 percent of all murder cases, the perpetrators were African-Americans according to federal statistics -- mostly because young black males commit a disproportionate number of crimes, mostly against other blacks.
  • Whites arrested for murder or manslaughter (other than negligent manslaughter) are more prone to be sentenced to death than blacks -- 1.6 percent of whites versus 1.2 percent of blacks, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • And white death-row prisoners are more likely to be executed: from 1977 to 1996, 7.2 percent of white prisoners were executed, compared to 5.9 percent of blacks.

In fact, say observers, blacks death-row tend to be repeat offenders more often than whites: black death row prisoners are 10 percent more likely than whites to have had previous felony convictions and 20 percent more likely to have prior homicide convictions.

Some death penalty opponents claim killers of whites are more likely to get a death sentence than killers of blacks. But a statistical study by Stephen Klein of the RAND Corporation found neither the race of the victim nor that of the killer appeared to affect death-penalty sentencing in California.

Source: David Andrew Price, "Death Penalty Is a Black and White Issue," USA Today.


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