Another Injustice in the Criminal Justice System

The death penalty isn't just a part of the criminal justice system where racial disparities become visible—it may also be a cause.
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 The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Wikimedia Commons)

 The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Wikimedia Commons)

As if we needed any more evidence of a disturbing racial bias in our criminal justice system, new research shows that even the possibility of a death sentence influences verdicts for both whites and blacks, but in opposite directions.

When jurors weigh their decisions about a defendant, they're instructed not to consider the punishments the individual faces if convicted. That information, though, is often repeated—and thus reinforced—throughout trial.

Prior research shows that the most severe, irreversible punishments—including death by lethal injection—make jurors more likely to acquit, according to the study authors. In such cases, when the stakes for wrongful convictions are so high, jurors tend to require more robust evidence. But at the same time, empirical evidence shows that black and Latino defendants are consistently hit with harsher treatment, at every level of the justice system. In fact, black individuals make up almost half of the prisoners on death row. In the new study, published in the journal Law and Human Behavior, researchers sought to determine if such racial biases might mediate jurors' leniency in the face of the most severe punishments.

When the death penalty was on the table, 80 percent of the jurors convicted the black defendant.

The team conducted a survey of 276 adults, 85 percent of them white, in the United States. The respondents were given a triple murder trial summary, deemed realistic by legal experts. After manipulating the maximum sentence (either life in prison without the possibility of parole, or the death penalty) and the defendant’s race (black or white), the researchers asked the jurors to decide whether to convict or acquit. The mock jurors were nearly equally likely to convict black and white defendants when the maximum sentence was life without parole—nearly 68 and 67 percent respectively. But when the death penalty was on the table, 80 percent of the jurors convicted the black defendant, while only 55 percent convicted the white defendant.

The study certainly had limitations. For one, jurors deliberate in groups before they make individual decisions, a factor that was not replicated here. But there are still obvious implications for violations of civil rights. And beyond that, the findings indicate that the death penalty may actually incapacitate fewer criminals, according to the study authors, considering that African Americans may be wrongfully sentenced to death more often and whites could be wrongfully acquitted more often.

Previously, the Supreme Court has upheld the use of the death penalty, in spite of its racially divided administration, on the grounds that eliminating capital punishment for that reason would mean eliminating any punishment that is administered unequally across races—which is pretty much all of them. But if the death penalty is actually a cause of racial disparities, rather than just one more racial disparity within our society, as the study suggests, it could have important implications for the legality of the death penalty in the first place.

Maybe we'd all be better off if we started calling "capital punishment" what it really is: a death sentence, and a preventable source of racial disparity.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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