Study suggests bias in death penalty cases—-Blacks on trial for life
more often in Harris County, professor claims
A new study on how race affects the way death penalty cases are handled in
Harris County, the so-called "capital of capital punishment," finds that
black offenders are more likely than whites to be placed on trial for
their lives, even when their crimes are relatively less heinous.
In the study, to be published in the fall issue of Houston Law Journal,
University of Denver sociology professor Scott Phillips concludes that
black defendants are 1.75 times more likely to face the death penalty at
trial and 1.49 times more likely to be sentenced to die.
Phillips also found that prosecutors were less likely to seek the death
penalty in capital-eligible cases in which the victims were black.
Phillips studied 504 capital cases handled between 1992 and 1999 under the
administration of former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes.
A formula devised
Applying a formula that attempts to control for factors such as the
criminal backgrounds of the accused or the circumstances of their crimes,
Phillips suggested a hypothetical: Of 100 black capital murder defendants,
prosecutors would seek death for 23. Of those, 17 would be sentenced to
die. Of 100 white offenders, prosecutors would seek death for 15; 12 of
those would be condemned.
"The probabilities," Phillips wrote, "translate abstract numbers into
human lives: 5 black defendants would be sentenced to the ultimate state
sanction because of race."
Scott Durfee, general counsel for the district attorney's office,
countered that the prosecutor's office has a long-standing policy of
presenting capital cases in a "race-neutral manner."
Durfee said Wednesday that the race of the defendant and victim are never
included in conferences with the district attorney during which details of
the case are discussed.
"I can't speak to the methodology of professor Phillips," Durfee said,
"but what I can say is that if you review each of the cases Mr. Holmes
made a decision on, case by case, the decision he made and the Harris
County juries made were reasonable and rational."
Holmes could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In a telephone interview, Phillips said an examination of the 504 Harris
County cases showed that prosecutors sought death for 27 % of white
offenders, and for 25 percent of black and Hispanic offenders.
"It all looked very even-handed," he said, "but that's not really the
whole story. What turns out to happen to black and white defendants is
really very different."
Less heinous crimes
A closer examination of the cases, Phillips said, showed that while blacks
and whites were subject to capital prosecution at about the same rate,
blacks in many cases had committed less heinous crimes.
Statistics showed they were less likely to have committed murders
involving burglary, kidnapping or rape, committed murder by beating,
stabbing or asphyxiating, or murdered victims who were vulnerable due to
age or murdered women.
"The bar appears to have been set lower for pursuing death against black
offenders," Phillips wrote. " … To impose equal punishment against
unequal crimes is to impose unequal punishment."
Phillips said his finding of racial disparities in capital cases does not
mean that prosecutors or juries consciously discriminated. Cases involving
white and Hispanic defendants seemed to have been handled equally, he
South Texas College of Law professor Geoffrey Corn questioned Phillips'
assertion that some capital murders were less heinous than others.
"If you start with the premise that some are more evil than others," he
said, "the question becomes: How do we make that determination?"
Corn suggested that if statistics still reflect racial disparities even as
prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries all strive to properly
perform their duties, "it may reflect just a latent social bias against
black defendants. How do you cure it other than by eliminating the death
"That raises a 2nd question: If that's the cure, why limit it to the death
penalty? Do we start to peel the onion? Are blacks convicted for more
rapes or burglaries? The answer may be yes."
A possible solution, he said, might be to ensure that trial juries, not
just jury pools, reflect a cross-section of the community.
(source: Houston Chronicle)