An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997
Initial Findings – April 16, 2001
Principal Investigator: Dr. Isaac Unah
Principal Collaborator: Professor John Charles Boger
The NC Death Penalty Study 2001
This is a preliminary report concerning a new study of capital punishment in the State of North Carolina that has been undertaken during the past nine months – the North Carolina Death Penalty Study 2001. It is the first major social scientific study of the death penalty conducted in North Carolina in over 20 years, and the first systematic look for patterns of racial discrimination in capital sentencing in the South employing data more recent than 1984. The report has been prepared by Dr. Robert Unah of the Department of Political Science of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC”), with the assistance of Professor John Charles Boger of the UNC School of Law.
As we will elaborate below, the preliminary findings present clear and disturbing evidence that North Carolina’s capital system in the 1990s continues to exhibit patterns of racial discrimination that cannot be explained by any of the legitimate sentencing considerations that have been sanctioned by North Carolina’s legislative and judicial branches.
The Preliminary Findings of the New Study
Our principal finding to date is that racial disparities continues to plague North Carolina’s capital punishment system in the 1990s—especially discrimination against defendants (of whatever race) whose murder victims are white. This finding is confirmed by numerous individual analyses we have conducted, employing different methods, and looking at various decision points throughout the capital charging and sentencing system.
Race matters in the initial decision whether to charge a defendant with first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter; it matters in the decision whether to go forward to trial; it matters in the decision whether to seek a death sentence; it matters in the jury’s life-or-death decision at the penalty phase of a capital trial.
Our first analysis looks at the frequency at which death sentences were imposed among all of the homicide cases that occurred in North Carolina during the 1993-1997 period. The overall death-sentencing rate in these cases is quite low—only 2.8%. Yet the death-sentencing rate among white-victim cases is nearly twice as high as among nonwhite victim cases (3.7% versus 1.9%). Moreover, looking beyond the race of the victim to that of the defendant, further racial disparities appear. When non-whites defendants murder white victims, the death sentencing rate is 6.4%; however, when white defendants murder white victims, the death sentencing rate falls by half, to 2.6%. When non-whites are both the defendant and the victim, death sentences dips even more, to only 1.7% of the cases.
Even when we refined our analysis, looking only at those cases that are “death eligible”— that is, those containing one or more factors designated by North Carolina law as “statutory aggravating circumstances that warrant imposition of a sentence of death, if the jury so chooses” (for example, the murder of a police officer, or a murder during an escape from prison)—we find that race continues to make a substantial difference in whether capital punishment is actually imposed. Capital punishment is imposed in 8% of all “death-eligible” white-victim cases, but the capital rate plummets to 4.7% in nonwhite victim cases. Moreover, just as in our earlier analysis, a wide disparity appears when comparing the sentencing rate for non-white defendants who murder whites (11.6%) with that of white defendants who murder whites (6.1%).
These findings, however, do not constitute the heart of our analysis, since they do not take into consideration other legitimate considerations that might possibly work in these cases to explain the apparent racial outcomes. For example, it is possible that more defendants in white-victim cases have serious criminal records than do defendants in nonwhite-victim cases, or that homicides committed against white victims are more frequently accompanied by rape, armed robbery, torture, or other serious crimes. To consider these factors, we turned to multiple regression analysis—a widely accepted statistical technique regularly employed in research in a variety of scientific fields. We conduct a series of regression analyses, using the “logistic regression” method that the research literature recommends for such studies. The advantage of such analyses is that their ability to detect whether a particular factor—such as race—is having an independent effect on a decision—such as a death sentence—even when other factors, such as the presence of a prior criminal record, or an accompanying rape or robbery, are simultaneously taken into account.
Our regression analyses confirm that the race of the ho micide victim is indeed playing a real, substantial, and statistically significant role in North Carolina’s capital sentencing system, one that simply cannot be attributed to any legitimate sentencing factors. For example, our analysis of “death-eligible” cases reveals that the race of the victim was statistically significant in predicting who will receive a death sentence, and that the “death odds multiplier” is 3.5, indicating that, on average, the odds of receiving a death sentence are increased by a factor of 3.5 when the murder victim is white. Similar analyses at different stages of the system—whether among all cases, only those cases that proceed to trial, cases where the prosecutor actively seeks a death sentence, or cases in which a jury must decide whether to impose a death sentence—all reaffirm this basic finding.
In sum, no matter what analyses we have performed, and no matter what stage of the process we have examined, the fact that the homicide victim is a white person turns out to operate as a “silent aggravating circumstance” that makes death significantly more likely to be imposed. While our study is not yet complete, we have confidence that these results do not represent a statistical construct or a fluke. Instead, they demonstrate that racial bias is a real and deeply troubling feature of North Carolina’s capital punishment system in the 1993-1997 period.[popup url=”http://www.ncchurches.org/download-page/download-race-and-the-death-penalty-in-nc”]Click here to download the full report[/popup] (75 Kb).