The Social Geometry of Death: Social Structure and Capital Punishment in Georgia, 1993-2000

Posted: 8 Aug 2010 Last revised: 27 Jul 2014

See all articles by Sherod Thaxton

Sherod Thaxton

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: April 13, 2009


In 1976 the United States Supreme Court lifted its four year moratorium on executions after deciding the modified death penalty statutes introduced by Florida, Georgia, and Texas contained constitutionally acceptable safeguards to significantly reduce the rampant arbitrariness, capriciousness, and bias that previously plagued the capital punishment process in America. Nonetheless, empirical studies at both the state and federal levels conducted since the death penalty was reinstated have consistently discovered that the administration of capital punishment remains both highly inconsistent and discriminatory. Not only do researchers continue to find that the death penalty is not exclusively reserved for the most heinous murder cases, but also that race/ethnicity, gender, and geography significantly influence the likelihood that a defendant is charged with a capital offense and receives the death penalty. These studies have resulted in considerable debate among legal scholars as to why three decades of procedural reforms to the capital punishment process have failed to satisfactorily reduce the very problems that initially led the Court to invalidate existing death penalty statutes. In a departure from most death penalty analyses, this project argues that previous attempts to reform the capital punishment system have been largely unsuccessful because they do not adequately identify and explain the complex ways in which legally legitimate and illegitimate factors impact legal decision-making. Drawing heavily from the socio-legal and social control literatures, this study advances a theory of legal behavior operating solely at the sociological level to explain capital charging-and-sentencing patterns and tests hypotheses derived from the theory using recent death penalty data from Georgia.

Keywords: Death Penalty, Capital Punishment, Law and Society, Empirical Legal Studies

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Thaxton, Sherod, The Social Geometry of Death: Social Structure and Capital Punishment in Georgia, 1993-2000 (April 13, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Sherod Thaxton (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States


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