Death Sentence Rates and County Demographics: An Empirical Study

25 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2004

See all articles by Theodore Eisenberg

Theodore Eisenberg

Cornell University, Law School (Deceased)

Date Written: October 15, 2004


Why do black defendant-black victim cases receive by far the lowest rate of death sentences? One hypothesis is that prosecutors devalue black victims' lives and do not regard black-victim murders as seriously as white victim murders. A second hypothesis, one that need not preclude the first, posits that black communities' aversion to the death penalty leads prosecutors to seek it less, or juries to impose it less, in minority communities. The first view represents a version of old-fashioned stereotypical racism. The second hypothesis could be regarded as democracy at work. Communities more hostile to the death penalty elect officials and process criminal cases in a manner that reflects local community values. This Article finds that, in addition to the number of murders, three other demographic factors influence the death sentence rate at the county level. The rate of death sentences decreases as a county's black population percent increases, as a county's per capita income increases, and as a county's homicide rate increases.

Keywords: Death penalty, capital punishment, race, sentencing

JEL Classification: K14, K41, J70

Suggested Citation

Eisenberg, Theodore, Death Sentence Rates and County Demographics: An Empirical Study (October 15, 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Theodore Eisenberg (Contact Author)

Cornell University, Law School (Deceased) ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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