Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980-2007

BY Michael L. Radelet & Glenn L. Pierce

For the past several years the North Carolina General Assembly has been interested in the question of whether there are racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty in that State. As researchers who have studied this issue in several states over the past three decades, we designed a study to determine if patterns of death sentencing in North Carolina correlated with the race of the victim and/or the race of the defendant among homicides with similar levels of aggravation.

After reviewing past research that has examined this issue, we gathered data on approximately 15,000 North Carolina homicides, from 1980 to 2007, of which 352 cases resulted in death sentences. We only included data on cases where the defendant and victim were either Black or White. In addition to the race variables, we gathered information that allowed us to ascertain the impact of two “legally relevant factors” in death sentencing: the number of victims in the homicide event and the number of contemporaneous felonies that occurred at the time of the homicide.

We found that both the race of the suspect and the race of the victim are associated with death sentencing, although the effect of the suspect’s race disappears when we statistically control for the other variables in the analysis. Those who kill Whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Blacks among cases where no Additional Factors were present, among cases with one additional legally relevant factor present, and among cases with two Additional Factors present. Thus, it is implausible to argue that the reason why those who kill Whites are sentenced to death more frequently than those who kill is because the former cases are “worse” or more aggravated.

Our final analysis enters all the relevant variables into a predictive equation. The data lead to the conclusion that overall, for homicides in North Carolina from 1980 to 2007, the odds of a death sentence for those who are suspected of killing Whites are approximately three times higher than the odds of a death sentence for those suspected of killing Blacks.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 89 N.C. L. Rev. 2119 (2011)