A Re-Analysis of the Role of Race in the Federal Death Penalty System
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The death penalty, as the ultimate sanction, has always served as a source of great debate and remains one of the most controversial punishments meted out by the criminal justice system. Due to concerns of its administration and application, a moratorium on the death penalty was declared by the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, and states were mandated by the Court to overhaul their respective death sentencing statutes in a manner that would conform to Court-approved standards under the U.S. Constitution. After the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, it was believed by many that the deficiencies cited in sentencing outcomes in capital cases four years earlier in Furman would either be eliminated or at least brought within constitutionally acceptable levels. Although there has been a wealth of empirical studies over the years at the state level, very few analyses have focused on how the death penalty is administered in the Federal system. In 2002, a study was funded to examine the potential influence of race in decisions by U.S. Attorney's Offices to seek or not seek the death penalty for defendants charged with death-eligible offenses under Federal law. Three independent research teams investigated whether charging outcomes could be explained by relevant legal factors such as the
heinousness of the offense. However, unlike the wealth of death penalty research which has conducted such analyses using more traditional multivariate models to isolate the effect of race on charging and sentencing outcomes, the three research teams conducted alternate analyses to compare outcomes in white victim versus non-white victim cases. The purpose of the current study will be to examine the role of race on charging decisions made in the federal death penalty system. The final results suggest that capital cases involving white victims may have a higher risk of being charged with the death penalty than cases involving non-white victims.