Study: Racial Disparities in Death Penalty Begin with Investigations and Arrests

A study of more than three decades of homicide arrests suggests that racial disparities in arrests and policing practices introduce an additional layer of bias in the application of the death penalty in the United States. While earlier research has documented that the race of victims affects prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty, and juries’ and judges’ decisions to impose death sentences, a new study by Professors Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University (pictured, left) and Amanda Geller of New York University (pictured, right) has found that those disparities appear even earlier in the process, at the arrest stage. “[H]omicides with white victims are significantly more likely to be ‘cleared’ by the arrest of a suspect than are homicides with minority victims,” the authors write. Since death-penalty prosecutions must begin with an arrest in a capital-eligible murder, these clearance rates create a disproportionately larger pipeline of white-victim cases. Fagan and Geller examined every homicide recorded in the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports from 1976 to 2009, uncovering county-level patterns in the “clearance rate” (the rate at which cases are closed by the arrest of a suspect). Counties with higher proportions of minority residents had lower clearance rates than counties with whiter populations, but the authors say that county characteristics alone do not completely account for the disparities. Rather, they say that broader policing practices also play a role. “Inequalities in policing, such as the underpolicing of the most serious crimes in the most disadvantaged communities, coupled with overpolicing of the least serious offenses in those same places, seem to extend to the initial stages of the production of death sentences and executions,” they write. They attribute the lower clearance rates of black-victim cases in part to distrust of police in communities of color, resulting in less willingness to cooperate in investigations. “Perceived injustices can disincentivize citizens from cooperating with the police,” they explain, “including both ‘petty indignities’ and egregious acts of police violence.” Thus, discriminatory policing practices contribute to disparate clearance rates, which in turn contribute to the discriminatory application of capital punishment.

(Jeffrey Fagan and Amanda Geller, Police, Race, and the Production of Capital Homicides, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-593, July 12, 2018.) See Race and Studies.

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