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Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases: Executive Summary

NCJ Number
214729
Date Published
Author(s)
Stephen Klein, Richard Berk, and Laura Hickman
Agencies
NIJ-Sponsored
Annotation
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 race of the defendants and victims.
Abstract
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 race of the defendants and victims. The study’s findings support the view that decisions to seek the death penalty were driven by the heinousness of the crimes rather than by race. 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 files. Defendant- and victim-race data were obtained from electronic files. Finally, three independent teams used the data to investigate whether charging decisions were related to defendant or victim race and the geographic area where case was prosecuted. Although there are large race effects in the raw data, all three teams found that controlling for nonracial case characteristics eliminated these effects. The nonracial case characteristics predicted the seek decision with 85 to 90 percent accuracy and there was no increase in accuracy when race was considered. However, the finding of no race effects is not definitive because of the difficulties in determining causation from statistical modeling of observational data.
Date Created: July 16, 2006