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Race and Sentencing in Texas
Ways in Which Race Can Impact Sentencing
Race of the Victim.....Nationally, nearly 80% of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution have been white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white. A 1990 examination of death penalty sentencing conducted by the United States General Accounting Office noted that, "In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks." Individual state studies have found similar disparities. In fact, race of victim disparities have been found in most death penalty states.
Race of the Defendant.....Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 45% white, 42% black, and 10% Latino/ Latina. Of states with more than 10 people on death row, Texas (70%) and Pennsylvania (69%) have the largest percentage of minorities on death row. Year 2000 census data revealed that the racial composition of the United States was 75.1% white, 12.3% black and 12.5% Latino/Latina. While these statistics might suggest that minorities are overrepresented on death row, the same statistical studies that have found evidence of race of victim effects in capital sentencing have not conclusively found evidence of similar race of defendant effects. In fact, while some studies show that the race of the defendant is correlated with death sentences, no researcher has made definitive findings that the death sentence is being imposed on defendants on account of their race, per se, independently of other variables (such as type of crime) which are correlated with defendants' race.
Race of the Jurors.....In capital cases, one juror can represent the difference between life and death. A belief that members of one race, gender, or religion might generally be less inclined to impose a death sentence can lead the prosecutor to allow as few of such jurors as possible. For example, a Dallas Morning News review of trials in that jurisdiction found systematic exclusion of blacks from juries. In a two-year study of over 100 felony cases in Dallas County, the prosecutors dismissed blacks from jury service twice as often as whites. Even when the newspaper compared similar jurors who had expressed opinions about the criminal justice system (a reason that prosecutors had given for the elimination of jurors, claiming that race was not a factor), black jurors were excused at a much higher rate than whites. Of jurors who said that either they or someone close to them had had a bad experience with the police or the courts, prosecutors struck 100% of the blacks, but only 39% of the whites.
Race of the Prosecutor.....Whenever and wherever capital punishment is authorized by law, the decision whether or not to seek a death sentence in particular cases is left to the discretion of the prosecutor. A 1998 examination of Chief District Attorneys in states with the death penalty found that nearly 98% are white, 1% are black, and 1% are Hispanic.
Concerns about the influence of race on the application of the death penalty in Texas were central to a 1993 civil rights claim raised by attorneys representing Gary Graham. A complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund contended that Graham was on death row as a direct result of widespread racial discrimination within the Texas criminal justice system. The claim was filed just days before Graham’s first scheduled execution date, and it pointed to a series of troubling racial disparities in Harris County, where Graham was tried and sentenced to death. The NAACP’s complaint presented evidence that black Texans who reside in Harris County are arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death in numbers that are vastly disproportionate to their representation in the population. It noted:
The incarceration rate in 1991 for black people in Harris County was nine times greater than the incarceration rate for white people.
In the same year, 61% of all offenders sent to prison from Harris County were black (although only 18% of the county’s population was black).
55% of the people on death row from Harris County were black, while only 35% were white.
Among people on death row from Harris County who, like Graham, were sentenced to death for crimes that occurred when they were teenagers, 73.3% were black and only 13.3% were white.
Graham's attorneys presented these disparities as “probable cause” for the Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of the influence of racial bias in the criminal justice system in Texas.