RAND Study Finds No Evidence of Racial Bias in Federal Prosecutors' Decisions to Seek Death Penalty from 1995–2000
July 17, 2006
A statistical analysis of federal prosecutors' decisions about whether to seek the death penalty has found no evidence of racial bias, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.
The RAND study, which is one of the most thorough examinations ever conducted of federal death penalty prosecutions, examined the files of 652 defendants who were charged with capital offenses between Jan. 1, 1995 and July 31, 2000 during U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's term in office.
Researchers say their findings do not relate to defendants prosecuted in federal courts before or after the study period, or to defendants prosecuted in state courts.
Three separate research teams found that the characteristics of the crime – not the racial characteristics of either the defendant or the victim – could be used to make very accurate predictions of whether federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
The study found that the likelihood of a decision to seek the death penalty rose for murders that were particularly heinous – usually involving a number of aggravating circumstances such as the killing of several victims, sexual abuse of the victim, the killing of an elderly person or a child, premeditated murders where there was extensive planning, killings in which the victim was set on fire, and murders in which the victim was mutilated or dismembered.
“Our findings support the idea that race was not a factor in the decision to seek the death penalty once we adjusted for the circumstances of the crime,” said Stephen Klein, a RAND senior research scientist and co-leader of the research project. “We were surprised by how well we could predict the decision to seek the death penalty based on the nature of the crime.”
The study's findings are strengthened by the fact that three separate research teams that used different methods to analyze information about the 652 defendants and the crimes they were accused of committing all reached the same conclusion.
Researchers found that prosecutors sought the death penalty against a higher percentage of white defendants than either African-American or Hispanic defendants. In addition, the death penalty was more likely to be sought against defendants who murdered whites than against those who killed African-Americans or Hispanics.
However, after accounting for the fact that certain types of killings were more heinous than others and therefore more likely to result in a decision to seek the death penalty, researchers found that the racial differences in the unadjusted data disappeared.
Although death penalty cases are most numerous in state criminal prosecutions, there are 33 statutes that allow federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Researchers say that federal capital cases are generally complex, and frequently involve multiple defendants, multiple victims and ongoing criminal enterprise activities.
When a defendant is charged under one or more of these statutes, the local U.S. attorney's office recommends to the U.S. attorney general whether or not the death penalty should be sought. These recommendations and the basis for them are then studied by the Attorney General's Review Committee. This committee then makes its own recommendation to the attorney general about whether to seek the death penalty. The attorney general's final decision almost always agrees with the review committee's recommendation.
Three research teams that included analysts from RAND, UCLA, UC Berkeley and the Research Solutions Group reviewed detailed information about the 652 defendants charged with capital offenses. Local U.S. attorneys recommended seeking the death penalty for 23 percent of these defendants.
The attorney general ultimately decided to seek the death penalty for 25 percent of the 600 defendants she considered. About 50 defendants reached plea agreements after their cases were submitted by U.S. attorneys, but before the attorney general made a decision about whether to seek the death penalty.
U.S. attorney offices from the South forwarded the majority of the cases for review and accounted for about half of the recommendations to seek the death penalty.
Researchers found that nearly half of the 652 defendants studied were African-Americans, and this group accounted for almost half of all the defendants for whom the death penalty was sought. Hispanics were the second largest group of defendants charged with capital offenses and they had the second largest number of seek decisions.
Most of the homicide cases that were studied were within the same racial group. For example, white defendants were much more likely to kill whites than African-Americans or Hispanics.
Professor Richard A. Berk of UCLA was the study's co-director. Other authors included David A. Freedman of UC Berkeley, Laura Hickman, Matthias Schonlau, Pat Ebener and Jennifer Wong of RAND, Yan He of UCLA, and Roger Bolus of the Research Solutions Group.
The study, requested by members of Congress and supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, was carried out through the Safety and Justice Program within the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division.
The mission of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division is to improve development, operation, use and protection of society's essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities. The Safety and Justice Program research addresses many aspects of public safety – including violence, policing, corrections, substance abuse and public integrity.
The study is titled “Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases” and is available at rand.org.