Prof. John Blume, law, Prof. Martin Wells, law, and Theodore Eisenberg, the H.A. Mark Professor of Law, recently completed a study on the death penalty for the first issue of the Law School’s Journal of Empirical Studies. The report was featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal last week.
“Ted and I have been working on the death penalty for a number of years,” said Prof. Wells, biometrics, the study’s statistician. “We’ve looked at various biases.”
The article, entitled “Explaining Death Row’s Population and Racial Composition” is based entirely on empirical data. “Empirical legal studies are a new idea. A lot of law is case-based or based on legal precedence. Statistics looks at many cases; it is a newer method of analysis,” said Wells.
As Wells explained, cases that make headlines do not tell all. “There is always an extreme. But you have to ask, is that really what’s happening over all cases?” he said.
The death penalty study had two main points. It first looked at the rate at which people get put on death row by state. The results were surprising. “You’d think Texas would be the highest, but it was actually mediocre. Texas had a rate similar to Oregon,” said Wells. According to the article, “the conventional wisdom about the death penalty is incorrect in some respects and misleading in others.”
Blume, Eisenberg and Wells sifted through a thousand cases in an attempt to understand the overall pattern. Texas, California and Florida, the three states with the greatest number of people on death row, were not more likely to sentence convicted murders than other states. Instead, the article said that “Oklahoma and Nevada are more death-prone states than are any of the big three.”
The study also examined the demographics of people on death row. “Based on the number of murders, African Americans are sentenced to death at a lower rate than whites,” the article said.
“We found a stark difference in rate of sentence as a function of the victim and defendant’s races,” Wells said.
The study found that African Americans who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than any other pairing. Next were whites who kill other whites, then African Americans who kill other African Americans.
“We think the prosecution doesn’t think they’ll get a death sentence in a black on black murder, so they don’t seek death,” Wells said.
As for the high frequency of sentencing for a black on white crime, “most murder is within races, so when it is across the race it’s a much bigger event,” Wells said.
The study also showed that sentencing was more likely if the victim was a stranger or when there was more than one victim. According to the study, blacks are less likely to kill strangers than are whites.
Because juries in urban communities are less likely to sentence black convicts, according to Wells in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “it’s fairly difficult to impose the death penalty fairly.”
The professors’ interest in the death penalty began in 1992 when Eisenberg and Wells published their first article “Deadly Confusion.” The article showed the impact of jurors who misunderstand the judge’s instructions.
As for future plans, Wells is unsure. “We’ll keep working on the death penalty. It’s a fairly open area of research because the legal system keeps most information, so there is a lot of information to mine,” Wells said.
Archived article by Jessica Liebman