Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases

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Technical Report

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Capital punishment -- United States, Discrimination in capital punishment -- United States, Discrimination in law enforcement, Capital punishment -- Government policy -- United States, Prison reform -- United States


This study examined the relationship between the federal government’s decision to seek the death penalty in a case and that case’s characteristics, including the defendant’s and victim’s races. This research began by identifying the types of data that would be appropriate and feasible to gather. Next, case characteristics were abstracted from Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU) files. Defendant- and victim-race data were obtained from electronic files. Finally, three independent teams used these data to investigate whether charging decisions were related to defendant or victim race. The teams also examined whether these decisions were related to case characteristics and geographic area. There are large race effects in the raw data that are of concern. However, all three teams found that controlling for nonracial case characteristics eliminated these effects, and that these characteristics could predict the seek decision with 85 to 90 percent accuracy. These findings support the view that decisions to seek the death penalty were driven by heinousness of crimes rather than by race. Nevertheless, these findings are not definitive because of the difficulties in determining causation from statistical modeling of observational data.


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