These lives matter, those ones don't: comparing execution rates by the race and gender of the victim in the U.S. and in the top death penalty states.

Author:Baumgardner, Frank R.
Position:Elephants in the Courtroom: Examining Overlooked Issues in Wrongful Convictions

In a recent article, Baumgartner and colleagues demonstrated based on national statistics that the odds of execution differ dramatically based on the race and gender of the victim. (2) They compared national statistics on homicide victimization, which clearly show that black males are the most likely victims of homicide, with data associated with the victims in execution cases. Black males are a high percent of the overall homicide cases, but a very low percent of the cases where the killer was later executed. In this article we break out these statistics to show their applicability to each of the major death-penalty states, showing that the national pattern is repeated in each individual state, without exception. These stark disparities clearly demonstrate that the death penalty, as applied in every major state, violates the most basic concepts of equal protection.


From 1976 through 2014, 1,394 judicial executions have taken place with 2,179 victims associated with the crimes for which those individuals were sentenced to die. (3) From 1976 through 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reports show 497,030 victims of homicide. (4) In the tables and figures below, we show the correspondence between the race and gender of homicide victims with those whose killers were later executed. (5) Of course, all homicides are not death-eligible, and many occur in states that do not have the death penalty. (6) The disparities we lay out here are so stark, however, that they cannot be explained by these facts. By presenting the simplest possible comparison of homicide victimization with execution cases, we also make clear that certain lives are treated as if they are "more equal" than others; the death penalty creates two categories of victims--those whose deaths demand the harshest punishment, and those whose deaths are "garden variety." (7) To a grieving mother or family member, it is hard to square the concept of "garden variety" homicide with the grief that we can expect to be associated with any tragedy. Our data show that there is indeed a racial and gender hierarchy in homicide victims as this relates to the death penalty, and these trends are similar in every state. Killers of white female victims are more than ten times more likely to be executed by the state than are the killers of black males. (8) Black males, on the other hand, are the most frequent victims of homicide in the United States, by far. (9) Their killers rarely face the death penalty. (10)

In the pages that follow we present data first for the entire United States, then for each of the major death penalty states, in order of the number of executions that state has carried out. We comment on the first set of results, for the United States, then provide identically formatted statistics for each of the states without comment or explanation unless the interpretation of the data is not clear from the discussion above.

A note on data sources and time frames: We make use of three main sources of data in this article. First, data on the victims of inmates executed cover all judicial executions from the post-Furman, period of U.S. capital punishment, 1976 through December 31, 2014. (11) This data was collected by the lead author over many years from public sources and reported in detail in Baumgartner et al. 2015. (12) Data on homicide victimization in general come from Fox 2001 and cover the period from 1976 through 1999. (13) Data on homicide offender-victim combinations come from the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports, which match homicide offenders with victims, showing the race and gender breakdown of each and cover the period of 1979 through 2012. (14) These are the most complete and up-to-date databases available. However, there could be concern about the lack of exact time matches. For homicide victimization in general, the data start in the same year as our execution-case database, 1976. However, these data are no longer made available after 1999. (15) Considering the lag between when a homicide occurs and when an execution eventually follows, this lack is exactly, if coincidentally, the right one, however. The time elapsed from crime to execution in the modern period has been increasing steadily each year. (16) From 2010 through 2014, 206 inmates were executed, and their average time from crime to execution was 16 years. (17) Limiting our data on homicides to this period is based on the availability of a comprehensive government report on homicide victimization. But the date happens to correspond exactly to what we would want, since homicides committed after 1999 would be unlikely to have resulted in an execution because of the delays associated with the capital punishment process.

With regards to the race and gender of offender-victim pairs, which come from the FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports, these data series run from 1979 through 2012. (18) While an increasing percentage of homicides have an "unknown" offender, the percentages of crimes with particular race and gender combinations of offenders and their victims are remarkably stable. For example, for white male offenders, the percentage of their victims who are also white males had an average value from 1998 through 2013 of 60, with values always within a range of 57 to 63. (19) Looking at all the offender-victim combinations reported here, the patterns remain highly stable over time. (20) As our concern is to compare the characteristics of homicide offender-victim relations overall with those from execution cases, the fact that the homicides trends are stable over time suggests that a lack of exact time match will have little impact on the results. In any case, 1979 through 2012 covers the vast bulk of the period of interest.

Finally, we compare homicides with executions, but only some homicides are death-eligible and therefore a cleaner comparison would be between death-eligible homicides and executions. (21) Such a comparison would also incorporate a limitation of the homicide data only to states with the death penalty. Two published studies provide reassurance that the statistical comparisons we report here are robust. John Blume and colleagues compared death sentences and homicides in eight death states, using the same federal homicides data we use here, and showed very similar differences in the likelihood of death based on the race of the offender and victim, rising from 2.4% for black-black homicides to 64.5% for black-white killings. (22) Jeffrey Fagan and collaborators compared homicide trends over time with capital-eligible homicides, showing that capital-eligible homicides represent approximately 25% of all U.S. homicides for the period of 1976 to 2003, and that this share was relatively consistent, if slowly growing, over time. (23) The share of homicides that are death-eligible is between 19 and 26% during this period. (24) Based on the fact that death-eligible homicides are a relatively constant percentage of all homicides, we can conclude that our estimates of rates of execution per homicide would be parallel with any similar rates we could calculate were data on all death-eligible homicides available.

With these considerations then in mind, we proceed with our results, which are presented as simple comparisons. Table U.S. 1 shows executions and homicides by victim characteristic for the U.S. as a whole. (25) Reading across the top row, Whites number 252,366, or 50.77%, of all homicide victims, and 1,652, or 75.81%, of the victims of inmates executed. (26) The number of execution cases divided by the number of homicides is 65 per 10,000. (27) In other words 0.65% of homicides of Whites lead to an execution. This last column is perhaps the most important single indicator: what percentage (or rate per 10,000) of homicide victims are associated with the execution of their killer. The table shows the rate is 65 for white victims but 14 for black victims. (28) Killers of white victims have more than four times the likelihood of execution than killers of Blacks. (29) The second part of the table compares male and female victims: execution rates per 10,000 are 29 for male victims but 91 for female victims. (30) The third part of the table combines these factors. (31) Rates move monotonically from their highest for white females (123 per 10,000 homicides...

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