Possibility of Death Sentence Has Divergent Effect on Verdicts for Black and White Defendants
Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper No. GSPP09-002
8 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2009
Date Written: June 24, 2009
When anticipating the administration of the death penalty, mock jurors may be less inclined to convict defendants. Furthermore, minority defendants have been shown to be treated more punitively. We conducted a survey-embedded experiment with a nationally representative sample to examine the effect of sentence severity as a function of defendant race, presenting respondents with a triple murder trial summary, manipulating the maximum penalty (death vs. life without parole) and the race of the defendant. Respondents who were told life-without-parole was the maximum sentence were not significantly more likely to convict Black (67.7%) than White defendants (66.7%). However, when death was the maximum sentence, respondents presented with Black defendants were significantly more likely to convict (80.0%) than were those with White defendants (55.1%). The results implicate threats to civil rights and to effective criminal incapacitation.
Keywords: Sentence severity, prejudice, discrimination, capital punishment, legal decisionmaking
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