Justice is blind? Not according to a new study in the journal Law and Society Review that indicates the socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race and criminal history of the victim makes all the difference when it comes to who gets the death penalty.
The lead researcher, Scott Phillips, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, examined 504 death penalty cases that occurred in Harris County, Texas (where Houston is located) between 1992 and 1999.
He found that the probability of being sentenced to death is significantly greater if the defendant kills a married, college-educated white or Hispanic victim with no criminal record. If the victim is a single black or Asian with a prior criminal record and no college degree, the chances of the murderer getting the death penalty are significantly less.
In Phillips’ words, “In the capital of capital punishment, death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others.” EurekAlert, March 8, 2010
The recent study is a follow-up to another conducted by Phillips that indicated black defendants are significantly more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in Houston—even though black defendants were generally less likely to kill high status victims.
These findings corroborate those from a 2005 study that examined all death penalty cases in California from 1990-1999. Among several interesting outcomes, that study showed that those who killed non-Latino whites were over three times more likely to be sentenced to death as those who killed black victims. And those who killed non-Latino whites were over four times more likely to be sentenced to death as those who killed Latinos.
The pre-publication version of Phillips’ study is online here as a PDF.