Study finds victim's race can skew death sentences in N.C.

By: Anne Blythe
The (Raleigh) News & Observer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina is nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty than someone accused of killing a black person, according to a study released Thursday by two researchers who looked at death sentences over a 28-year period.

The findings come as many in North Carolina are focusing on the death penalty and race. Death-row inmates have only a few more weeks to file challenges to their sentences under the Racial Justice Act approved by the legislature last year.

For the study, touted as one of the most comprehensive examinations to date of the modern administration of the death penalty in North Carolina, Michael L. Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Glenn L. Pierce, a research scientist in the Northeastern University school of criminology and criminal justice in Boston, examined 15,281 homicides in the state between Jan. 1, 1980, and Dec. 31, 2007. Of those, 368 resulted in death sentences.

The researchers looked at many factors, such as the number of victims and whether other crimes such as burglaries and robberies were committed during the homicide. They also tried to consider similar homicide cases.

Their analysis of the data showed that the odds of receiving a death sentence in cases where the victim was white were 2.96 times as high as the odds in cases with black victims.

"It's just kind of baffling that, in this day and age, race matters," Radelet said.

Jay Ferguson, a defense lawyer in Durham, said the study found what others have shown - that it's not so much the race of the defendant, but the race of the victim, that determines the punishment.

"I think, over the years, the white-victim cases seem to get more attention in the criminal justice system," Ferguson said. "They seem to get more attention from the district attorneys and the juries. The legislature has made it clear that if we're going to have a death penalty in North Carolina, it's got to be colorblind. And these studies show it's not."