Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010: Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts

211 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2018  

John H. Kramer

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Sociology and Criminology

Jeffery Todd Ulmer

Penn State University

Gary Zajac

Pennsylvania State University - Justice Center for Research

Date Written: September 2017

Abstract

A study of disparity in the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania by Kramer, Ulmer, and Zajac (2017) was recently completed for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness. This study collected basic statistical data on 4,274 cases charged with homicide in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2010, and then collected highly detailed data from courts and prosecutors’ offices on a subset of 880 first degree murder convictions in 18 counties accounting for more than 87% of all 2000-2010 first degree murder convictions. Utilizing propensity score methods in analyses of these first degree murder convictions, the study examined whether defendants’ and victims’ race/ethnicity (separately and in combination), predicted: 1) prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty, 2) prosecutors’ decisions to retract a motion to seek the death penalty once it is filed, and 3) court decisions to sentence defendants to death or life without parole. Key findings were: 1) No pattern of disparity was found to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants in prosecutors’ decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty. 2) Black and Hispanic defendants were not disadvantaged in death penalty sentence decisions relative to White defendants. 3) Cases with White victims, regardless of race of defendant, were 8% more likely to receive the death penalty, while Black victim cases were 6% less likely to receive the death penalty. 4) Prosecutors filed to seek the death penalty in 36% of first degree convictions; but later retracted that filing in 46% of those cases. Moreover, a predominant pattern emerged in which a death penalty filing strongly predicted a guilty plea in these murder cases, and pleading guilty strongly predicted the retraction of the death penalty filing. 5) There were very large differences between counties in the likelihood of prosecutors filing to seek the death penalty, the likelihood of their retracting that filing, and in courts imposing the death penalty. In fact, the biggest extra-legal influence on whether defendants faced or received the death penalty was where their cases were handled. 6) Public defenders were less likely than private or court appointed attorneys to have the death penalty filed in cases they represented. However, public defender cases were more likely to receive the death penalty, and defendants represented by private attorneys were especially unlikely to receive the death penalty. These defense attorney differences also, in turn, varied greatly between counties.

Keywords: death penalty, sentencing, capital punishment, courts

Suggested Citation

Kramer, John H. and Ulmer, Jeffery Todd and Zajac, Gary, Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010: Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts (September 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3148037 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3148037

John H. Kramer

Pennsylvania State University - Department of Sociology and Criminology ( email )

PA
United States

Jeffery Todd Ulmer (Contact Author)

Penn State University ( email )

Department of Sociology
211 Oswald Tower
University Park, PA 16802
United States

Gary Zajac

Pennsylvania State University - Justice Center for Research ( email )

PA
United States

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