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February 14, 2004

Free Reads -- Texas Death Penalty Stats

Dear Friedrich --

Quite an amazing Adam Liptak article in today's NYTimes. Did you see it? A new study suggests two surprising things: that Texas sentences fewer murderers to the death penalty than the average state does, and that blacks are actually underrepresented on Death Row. The story is readable here.

Sample passages:

As a percentage of murders, Nevada and Oklahoma impose the most death sentences, at 6 and 5.1 percent. In Texas, the percentage is 2 percent. The rate in Virginia, another state noted for its commitment to capital punishment, is 1.3 percent. The national average is 2.5 percent; the median is 2 percent ...

Using the same analysis, the study concluded that blacks are actually underrepresented on the nation's death row. Blacks commit 51.5 percent of all murders nationally but constitute about 42 percent of death row inmates, the study found ... What little effect the defendant's race appeared to have on the sentencing rate operated in favor of black defendants.

I wonder if this will be much noticed, or much discussed. Your hunch?



posted by Michael at February 14, 2004


What you didn't quote, though, was this:

"The difference between the sentencing rate in Texas, which trails the national average, and the execution rate, which exceeds it, suggests that what takes place after convictions accounts for Texas's reputation. Texas juries are no more likely to impose death sentences than their counterparts elsewhere, but appeals courts and prosecutors in the state are more likely to ensure that sentences are carried out."

So is really about "Texas", not "Texans". Texans are no different from anyone else, but their representatives act very differently than those elsewhere. Perhaps "representatives" are more interested in representing the image of the state than the people of it?

Posted by: Rv. Agnos on February 14, 2004 10:17 PM

The article seemed to me to leave a lot of questions unanswered. Did it to you too? Although maybe it was reporting all there was to report, and a lot of questions are still out there. Did you notice that one county in particular was responsible for an amazing number of executions? Bad place to be caught! It'll be interesting to see what further studies show. I wouldn't have thought it would be such a complicated set of questions to ask and find answers to. Shows you what I know.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2004 11:31 PM

According to most studies on the subject, the real factor in determining whether a murderer receives the death penalty isn't his/her race per se, but the race of the victim. So the "reason" fewer Black murderers are on Death Row might well be that their victims are also disproportionately Black. Some African-American leaders have pointed to these statistics as evidence that the judicial system is more biased against Black victims of violent crime (who tend to have low or fixed incomes) than against their attackers.

Texas's reputation comes from several high-profile cases in which the defendant's legal representation was clearly inadequate (fell asleep during trial, refused to introduce important new evidence) or in which the prosecution directly appealed to a jury's prejudice to obtain a death-penalty verdict (in one case, claiming that life in prison "wouldn't be that much of a punishment" for a Gay man convicted of murder). It also comes from other high-profile cases where the death penalty was not involved, but in which Black Texans were victims of deliberate police harassment (cf. Tryon, where one-quarter of the area's African-American citizens were arrested and imprisoned -- often for years -- on trumped-up charges).

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 15, 2004 3:42 PM

The study used arrest records as a proxy for convictions. It did not exclude people who were arrested but not prosecuted or not convicted.

Whoa! Hold the phone! That's an important little fact to know... See, when we're studying (say) teeth, we don't use gums as a proxy. Seems not every gum has a tooth growing on it, don't y'know.

Whether this study was hurried, underfunded, headed by a lazy PI, or some combination of these and other factors detrimental to proper research design, this is what's called `convenience statistics.'

This did not affect the study's conclusions, its authors write, "because erroneous murder arrests are of concern only if they vary unevenly across states."

Well, do they? I would be surprised if it turned out they didn't, given that arrest rates per murder are probably going to wind up being a function of whether a community's LEOs are more aggressive or more cautious about making arrests in murder cases—I could see that varying quite widely across counties and states.

Posted by: Luis on February 15, 2004 8:16 PM

Here's another hole in the statistics, assuming they are reported correctly: if blacks are a lower percentage of death row inmates (42) than of murderers (51.5), that doesn't prove that black murderers are less likely to be sentenced to death. It could (at least theoretically) just show that they are executed sooner on the average, and therefore spend less time on death row. If true (I wouldn't know), that could have more than one explanation, e.g. less access to competent counsel, or greater willingness to halt all appeals and get it over with. I have no evidence for any of these possibilities -- I'm just pointing out the logical flaw in using numbers on death row as a proxy for chances of getting sentenced to death.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on February 15, 2004 9:01 PM

All of the above are excellent points, but I would beg the question - does the Death Penalty really deter any would-be murderer from commiting his crime? Does the fact that Texas or Oklahoma put to death more inmates equate to a smaller murder rate? My guess would be no.

As usual, a very provocative post, Michael.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on February 15, 2004 10:12 PM

And you would have guessed correctly, Cowtown Pattie.

The infamous "hanging judge" Isaac Parker stated that the severity of a penalty doesn't deter to crime. The more likely one is to get caught, the less likely one is to commit a crime.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 15, 2004 11:43 PM

Clearly we're not executing enough people. We should liquidate all murderers, most crooks, and possibly even a few jaywalkers, just to make an impression. Then we'd see a drop in the crime rate. A few beheadings would be swell too.

Posted by: Dottie Wiggins on February 16, 2004 7:43 AM

Michael wrote: "Did you notice that one county in particular was responsible for an amazing number of executions? Bad place to be caught!"

I live in Houston. Harris County is the most populous county in the state, I'm pretty sure. 3.4MM people, out of 20.9MM in Texas, according to the 2000 Census (, or about 16% of Texans. Although the execution and death row proportions are higher (70 of 317 executions = 22%; 158 of the 450 inmates on death row = 35%), these might be due to higher murder rates in the county, a greater pursuit of the death penalty by the local prosecutors, or (per Mr. Hulsey) more murder victims being white, relative to the rest of Texas.

Posted by: Raymund on February 16, 2004 11:37 AM

In Virginia, for instance, blacks who murdered blacks were sentenced to death 0.4 percent of the time, while blacks who murdered whites were sentenced to death 6.4 percent of the time. The rate for white killers of whites was 1.8 percent; for white killers of blacks, 2.3 percent.

What jumps out at me first, of course, is the discrepancy in sentencing for black and white interracial killers. That's not new information, really, but what surprises me is that white killers of blacks are also (slightly) more likely to be sentenced to death than white killers of whites. A partial explanation for the greater likelihood of a death sentence in interracial killings could be whether the victim and the killer knew one another. It seems possible that killers who were not acquainted with their victims were more likely to have killed in the course of committing another crime, or by randomly choosing a victim; while killers who knew their victims could more frequently establish some extenuating circumstance--cheating spouse, business or family argument, etc. Killings within some social network would likely include a larger portion of intraracial homicides than interracial homicides.

I wonder if another study could isolate these factors, and control specifically for killings connected to drug crimes, which seem less likely to inspire outrage (and death sentences) if the victim is a felon.

That would put the different rates for death sentences in a fuller context, and prompt some interesting conversation questions: Is it worse to kill a stranger than a friend? Is there something "understandable" about killing an acquaintance?

Posted by: Daniel on February 17, 2004 2:10 AM

A 0.5% discrepancy isn't statistically significant, even on a relatively large Death Row like Virginia's -- though in this case, the relative parity in sentencing for White killers of Whites and White killers of Black Americans is interesting news.

But that 6% difference is very large indeed, and cannot be so easily dismissed.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 17, 2004 3:44 AM

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