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Untangling the Role of Race in Capital Charging and Sentencing in North Carolina, 1990-2009

37 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2015 Last revised: 21 Feb 2017

Barbara O'Brien

Michigan State University - College of Law

Catherine M. Grosso

Michigan State University College of Law

George G. Woodworth

University of Iowa - Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science

Abijah Taylor

Michigan State University - College of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2015

Abstract

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA) provided that a defendant may state a claim for relief based on statistical evidence of discrimination in capital charging and sentencing decisions. This paper reports the methodology and findings of a McCleskey-style study of capital charging and sentencing decisions in North Carolina between 1990 and 2009. The findings reported here show that white victim cases and black defendant/black victim cases pull strongly in the opposite direction in these decisions. The primary model analyzing death sentencing among all death-eligible cases shows that — even after controlling for multiple measures of culpability — cases with at least one white victim face odds of receiving a death sentence that are 2.17 times the odds faced by all other cases (p < .001). The evidence further suggests that this effect arises primarily in the charging decisions of prosecutors, where prosecutors systematically disregard cases in which black defendants kill black victims. The odds of a black defendant/black victim case advancing to a capital trial are 2.6 times lower than the odds faced by all other cases (p < .001). Juries were significantly less likely to impose a death sentence in the few white defendant/black victim cases (odds ratio 0.19, p < .05); without these cases, analysis of penalty trial decisions does not identify race effects. We do not find evidence of discrimination against black defendants generally or against black defendants who kill white victims specifically.

At the bottom line, although this study refines the methodology used in previous studies of charging and sentencing in North Carolina, its results echo their conclusions. Our findings are also largely consistent with the broad trends identified in capital charging and sentencing studies across many jurisdictions in the 25 years since McCleskey. This lends credibility to our conclusion that despite ongoing protestations to the contrary, race plays a significant in charging and sentencing decisions.

Keywords: capital punishment, criminal law, death penalty, empirical analysis, murder, race discrimination, sentencing, North Carolina, Racial Justice Act

Suggested Citation

O'Brien, Barbara and Grosso, Catherine M. and Woodworth, George G. and Taylor, Abijah, Untangling the Role of Race in Capital Charging and Sentencing in North Carolina, 1990-2009 (March 1, 2015). 94 North Carolina Law Review 1997 (2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2689213

Barbara O'Brien

Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

Catherine M. Grosso (Contact Author)

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

Law College Building
648 N. Shaw Lane, Office 417
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

George G. Woodworth

University of Iowa - Department of Statistics & Actuarial Science ( email )

Iowa City, IA 52242-1409
United States

Abijah Taylor

Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

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