Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Death Sentences and Race

Not that I want to confuse any 3150 students out there studying for finals, but this new study, by former UGA sociology grad student Scott Phillips, argues a definitive link between race of the defendant and imposition of capital punishment.

The new study also detected a more straightforward disparity. It found that the race of the defendant by itself plays a major role in explaining who is sentenced to death.

It has never been conclusively proven that, all else being equal, blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites in the three decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Many experts, including some opposed to the death penalty, have said that evidence of that sort of direct discrimination is spotty and equivocal.

But the author of the new study, Scott Phillips, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, found a robust relationship between race and the likelihood of being sentenced to death even after the race of the victim and other factors were held constant.

As the Times article goes on to note, this is important since the race of the victim has been the stronger variable in determining who receives the death penalty, and the race of the defendant often more difficult to assess.

Nevertheless, not everyone agrees.

Jon Sorensen, a professor of justice studies at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said he was suspicious of Professor Phillips’s methodology.

“It’s bizarre,” Professor Sorensen said. “It starts out with no evidence of racism. Then he controls for stuff.”

Moreover, Professor Sorensen said, Professor Phillips failed to take account of other significant factors, including the socioeconomic status of the victims.

I'd have to read Phillips' study to fully understand the context of the comments above, but at first blush it seems Sorensen's comments to be the more "bizarre," especially since the socioeconomic status of the victim would be irrelevant to the point of the race of the defendant and imposition of death sentences.

Nevertheless, Phillips makes some interesting points and challenges some long-held beliefs in death penalty literature. I'm particularly pleased to see the Times article discuss McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) and the comments of Justice Lewis Powell on this case which was often compared to the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The majority opinion in McCleskey was written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. After he retired, his biographer asked Justice Powell whether, given the chance, he would change his vote in any case.

“Yes,” Justice Powell said. “McCleskey v. Kemp.”

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