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Study ties death sentences to victim's race

By Claire Cooper
Sacramento Bee
Sept. 22, 2005

More condemned men and women are on California's death row for killing whites than for murdering people of any other race, despite there being more black and Hispanic murder victims, according to a new study.

The study, to be published in the Santa Clara Law Review, for the first time takes a detailed accounting of the races of California homicide victims killed in the 1990s. It concludes that suspects who murder whites are almost four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Hispanics. Also, perpetrators who kill whites are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks.

"To put it bluntly, there's apparently different values being placed on victims from different racial and ethnic groups," Northeastern University criminal justice professor Glenn Pierce, a co-author of the study, said in an interview. "That's what the pattern would suggest."

However, the report, "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-1999," concludes that the race of the defendant did not contribute significantly to whether prosecutors sought the death penalty or whether jurors would issue a death judgment.

Instead, the study, co-authored by Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor, concluded the victim's race was paramount in determining whether a defendant would get a death sentence.

Pierce said his conclusions mirrored studies in other states.

The study focuses on 263 California death sentences in the 1990s, although there were 302 death sentences issued altogether during that time. The study eliminated 39 cases where a person was sentenced to death for multiple murders that took the lives of victims from different races or ethnic groups.

Of the 263 sentences, 142 were handed down for killing whites; 44 rendered for murdering blacks; 52 for Hispanics and 25 for other races. During that time period, there were 8,136 whites killed; 9,338 blacks; 14,089 Hispanics and 2,037 victims of other races.

The survey also notes that some counties, particularly rural ones, dole out the death penalty disproportionately to their larger, metropolitan counterparts.

"This study forced the people in California to confront the unfairness of how the death penalty is applied in this state," said Ellen Kreitzberg, a Santa Clara University professor and director of its Death Penalty College. "The decision of who will live and who will die in California turns on arbitrary and unlawful factors such as the race and ethnicity of the murder victim or the location where the murder was committed."

Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the study showed that California does not racially discriminate against murder defendants because race of the defendant was not found to be a factor.

"I think that is an accomplishment to be celebrated," he said. "People who are attacking the death penalty want to find discrimination go looking for it and cannot find it."

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Georgia case, said studies like California's were not grounds for reversing death cases, unless racial bias could be proven by an individual defendant.

The study noted, as have others, that the death penalty is sought more in some of California's 58 counties than in others. Rural Kern County, for example, has doled out 10 death sentences in the 1990s for 661 murders. Compare that to larger, urban San Francisco, which had 910 murders and no death judgments. Prosecutors there never sought the death penalty.

"It's not racial prejudice, it's the choice of the voters in a county," Scheidegger said. "The voters of Kern elect a harsher DA. The voters in San Francisco select a DA who doesn't do the death penalty at all. That's democracy."

California reinstated the death penalty by legislation in 1977 and by public vote the following year. Since that vote, California's death row has swelled to 645 inmates, making it the nation's largest. Still, California rarely executes its inmates. Eleven have been put to death since the law was adopted.

The reasons include not enough lawyers to handle their appeals and, among others, an overloaded capital punishment docket.

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