Study Finds Racial Imbalance on Death Row
By DAVID KRAVETS
Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- 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, tallied the races of California homicide victims in the 1990s.
It concluded suspects who murdered whites were almost four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed Hispanics, and three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks.
"To put it bluntly, there's apparently different values being placed on victims from different racial and ethnic groups," said Northeastern University criminal justice professor Glenn Pierce, a co-author of the study. "That's what the pattern would suggest."
When it came to the race of the defendant, the study concluded race did not contribute significantly to whether prosecutors sought the death penalty or jurors recommended death.
Instead, it was the race of the victim that was paramount.
Pierce said his conclusions in "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-1999" mirrored studies in other states.
The study focused on 263 California death sentences in the 1990s. There were 302 death sentences issued during that time, but the study eliminated 39 cases that involved multiple victims of different races or ethnic groups.
Of the 263 sentences, 142 were handed down for killing whites, 44 for killing blacks, 52 for killing Hispanics and 25 for killing victims of other races.
During the same period, killed were 8,136 whites, 9,338 blacks, 14,089 Hispanics and 2,037 victims of other races.
The study also noted that some counties, particularly rural ones, issued death sentences disproportionately to metropolitan areas.
Rural Kern County, for example, issued 10 death sentences in the 1990s for 661 murders. San Francisco had 910 murders, but prosecutors there never sought the death penalty.
"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, noted that the study showed California did not racially discriminate against murder defendants. He called that "an accomplishment to be celebrated."
"It's not racial prejudice. It's the choice of the voters in a county," Scheidegger said. "The voters of Kern elect a harsher the. The voters in San Francisco select a the who doesn't do the death penalty at all. That's democracy."
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.
California has 645 inmates on death row. It has executed 11 people since reinstating the death penalty in 1977.
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