An Empirical Examination of the Factors Associated with the Commutation of State Death Row Prisoners’ Sentences between 1986 and 2005
29 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 26, 2012
Commutation is usually a death row prisoner’s last hope of evading his or her capital sentence. However, unlike many other stages of the death penalty process, little research focuses on the factors that affect decisions to commute or allow a death sentence to go forward, and that which has been conducted utilizes data which is now nearly a decade old. This paper seeks to examine personal and demographic factors associated with commutation decisions and to resolve incon- sistent findings in the prior research. Using the statistical method of multiple logistic regression, this paper finds statistically significant disparities in the odds of commutation by sex (women have an eleven-fold increase in odds of commuta- tion), race (nonwhite prisoners have twice the odds of commutation), geography (southern prisoners have less than one-fifth the odds of commutation), and education (college educated offenders have one-fifth the odds of commutation). After adjusting for other factors, this research does not find evidence that, across the run of cases, criminal history or severity significantly influence commutation decisions. This research, while unable to generate conclusions about any indi- vidual case, provides evidence that executives’ commutation decisionmaking is driven more by personal characteristics — some of which are troubling — than by criminal culpability.
Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty, commutation, criminal law, commute
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