65 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2013
Date Written: February 19, 2013
Stark racial disparities define America’s relationship with the death penalty. Though commentators have scrutinized a range of possible causes for this uneven racial distribution of death sentences, no convincing evidence suggests that any one of these factors consistently account for the unjustified racial disparities at play in the administration of capital punishment. We propose that a unifying current running through each of these partial plausible explanations is the notion that the human mind may unwittingly contribute bias into the seemingly neutral concepts and processes of death penalty administration.
To test the effects of implicit bias on the death penalty, we conducted a study on 445 jury eligible citizens in six leading death penalty states. We found that jury eligible citizens harbored the two different kinds of implicit racial bias we tested: implicit racial stereotypes about Blacks and Whites generally, as well as implicit associations between race and the value of life. We also found that death qualified jurors, those that expressed a willingness to consider imposing both a life sentence and a death sentence, harbored stronger implicit and self-reported (explicit) racial biases than excluded jurors. The results of the study underscore the potentially powerful role of implicit bias and suggest that racial disparities in the modern death penalty could be linked to the very concepts entrusted to maintain the continued constitutionality of capital punishment: its retributive core, its empowerment of juries to express the cultural consensus of local communities, and the modern regulatory measures that promised to eliminate arbitrary death sentencing.
Keywords: implicit racial bias, race of victim effect, death penalty, capital punishment, racial disparities, empirical study
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Levinson, Justin D. and Smith, Robert J. and Young, Danielle, Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States (February 19, 2013). New York University Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2307719