Cover: Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases

Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases

Published Jul 11, 2006

by Stephen P. Klein, Richard A. Berk, Laura J. Hickman

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This study examined the relationship between the federal government’s decision to seek the death penalty in a case and that case’s characteristics, including the defendant’s and victim’s races. This research began by identifying the types of data that would be appropriate and feasible to gather. Next, case characteristics were abstracted from Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU) files. Defendant- and victim-race data were obtained from electronic files. Finally, three independent teams used these data to investigate whether charging decisions were related to defendant or victim race. The teams also examined whether these decisions were related to case characteristics and geographic area. There are large race effects in the raw data that are of concern. However, all three teams found that controlling for nonracial case characteristics eliminated these effects, and that these characteristics could predict the seek decision with 85 to 90 percent accuracy. These findings support the view that decisions to seek the death penalty were driven by heinousness of crimes rather than by race. Nevertheless, these findings are not definitive because of the difficulties in determining causation from statistical modeling of observational data.

The research described in this report was supported by a grant awarded to the RAND Corporation by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice. The research was conducted under the auspices of the Safety and Justice Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment (ISE).

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