Race, Death, and Justice: Capital Sentencing in Washington State, 1981-2014

Beckett, Katherine; Evans, Heather

This Article examines the role of race in the application of the death penalty in the wake of the Furman v. Georgia decision. Although contemporary death penalty statutes were designed to reduce arbitrariness and discrimination in capital sentencing, many studies indicate that race continues to play a significant role in determining which capital defendants live and which die in the post-Furman era. To date, however, no published study has examined the role of race in capital sentencing in Washington State, where the statutory framework effectively reduces the number of homicide cases that are eligible for capital punishment and prosecutorial discretion is therefore comparatively circumscribed. This Article assesses whether race influences the administration of capital punishment in Washington State, and if so, where in the process it matters. On the one hand, the narrowness of the statutory framework may effectively constrain prosecutorial discretion in ways that minimize the role of race. On the other hand, experimental research suggests that unconscious stereotypes that link Blacks to violence are widespread, and that jury selection and deliberations tend to amplify jurors’ implicit biases. We therefore hypothesize that race will matter most at the sentencing (as opposed to the filing) stage of the process. To test this, we analyze prosecutorial and jury decision-making in all Washington aggravated murder cases adjudicated since 1981 for which information is available. The results of statistical regression analyses support this hypothesis: although neither the race of the defendant nor the victim affect prosecutorial decision-making, jurors are more than four times more likely to impose a death sentence when the defendant is Black. These findings suggest that race plays a significant role in capital sentencing even where the statutory framework effectively narrows the pool of homicide cases that may result in the death penalty.

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Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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October 31, 2016