Adam Liptak reported on a study that found the way race factors into the death penalty in Harris County, Texas. This is important because Harris County (where Houston in located) puts more people to death than any other state in the U.S. (besides Texas, of course).
So what did the study find? Well, besides echoing other studies that said that the race of the murder victim played a large role in who was sentenced to death, it suggested that the actual race of the defendant was a factor in how often the death penalty was sought.
But the author of the new study, Scott Phillips, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, found a robust relationship between race and the likelihood of being sentenced to death even after the race of the victim and other factors were held constant.
His statistics have profound implications. For every 100 black defendants and 100 white defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County, Professor Phillips found that an average of 12 white defendants and 17 black ones would be sent to death row. In other words, Professor Phillips wrote, “five black defendants would be sentenced to the ultimate sanction because of race.”
The district attorney’s office that was the focus of the study pointed out that the death penalty was sought was roughly proportional by race.
John B. Holmes Jr., the district attorney in the years Professor Phillips studied, 1992 to 1999, asked for the death sentence against 27 percent of the white defendants, 25 percent of the Hispanic defendants and 25 percent of the black defendants. (Professor Phillips studied 504 defendants indicted for the murders of 614 people. About half of the defendants were black; a quarter each were white and Hispanic.)
Mr. Holmes was, Professor Phillips said, selective but effective: he asked for the death sentence against 129 defendants and obtained 98.)
But Phillips told Liptak the stats don’t tell the whole story.
Once the kinds of murders committed by black defendants were taken into consideration — terrible, to be sure, but on average less heinous, less apt to involve vulnerable victims and brutality, and less often committed by an adult — “the bar appears to have been set lower for pursuing death against black defendants,” Professor Phillips concluded.
When you throw racial bias on top of all that, the arguments for capital punishment lose their legs.