‘Black-looking’ criminals more likely to get death sentence

Male murderers with stereotypically ”black-looking” features are more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than lighter-skinned African American defendants found guilty of killing a white person, Stanford researchers have found. The relationship between physical appearance and the death sentence disappears, however, when both murderers and their victims are black.

”Race clearly matters in criminal justice in ways in which people may or may not be consciously aware,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology. ”When black defendants are accused of killing whites, perhaps jurors use the degree to which these defendants appear stereotypically black as a proxy for criminality, and then punish accordingly.”

Eberhardt’s findings are published in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science. ”Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes” is co-authored with Paul G. Davies, a former Stanford postdoctoral scholar who is now an assistant professor at the University of California-Los Angeles; former Stanford graduate student Valerie J. Purdie-Vaughns, now an assistant professor at Yale University; and Cornell University law Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, an expert on the death penalty.

Extensive studies already have established that murderers of white victims are more likely than murderers of black victims to be sentenced to death, Eberhardt said. In 1990, the General Accounting Office described this race-of-victim effect as ”remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods and analytic techniques.”

Eberhardt, who studies race and criminality, said she wanted to find out whether racial stereotypicality involving African Americans might affect sentencing outcomes in capital cases. She also was interested in whether the race of the victim would change the outcome.

”We thought there might be some effect there, but we didn’t know how strong it would be,” she said. The study found that 57.5 percent of defendants rated to have ”stereotypically black” features-broad noses, thick lips, dark skin and hair-were sentenced to death compared with only 24.4 percent of men who were rated as less stereotypically black. This effect completely disappeared, however, in ”black-on-black” capital cases: ”There was no relationship between defendants’ physical appearances and the sentences they received,” Eberhardt explained. ”These results resonate with previous findings on race and the death penalty, which consistently show that defendants accused of killing white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those accused of killing blacks.”

The study

The researchers used a comprehensive database compiled by David C. Baldus, a law professor at the University of Iowa and an expert on the administration of the death penalty. The database contains more than 600 death-eligible cases from Philadelphia that advanced to the penalty phase between 1979 and 1999. Forty-four of the cases involved black male defendants convicted of murdering white victims.

During two sessions, 51 mostly white and Asian Stanford undergraduates (the researchers did not include African Americans in case they influenced the raters’ perceptions of stereotypes) looked at photographs of the 44 black male faces for four seconds each. The students, who were not told anything about the nature of the study, were asked to rate the faces for stereotypical features on a scale from one to 11. The study controlled for the defendant’s attractiveness and other nonracial factors known to influence sentencing, such as the severity of the murder, and the defendant’s and the victim’s socioeconomic status, Eberhardt said.

The researchers found that ”more stereotypically black” defendants received the death penalty more than twice as much as those who were ”less stereotypically black.”

The researchers then looked at whether these findings were consistent when a black victim was involved. Out of the 600 cases, 308 involved black defendants and black victims. A group of 18 white and Asian students then rated the faces of a randomly selected group of 118 men from this group.

”Employing the same analyses as we did for the cases with white victims, we found that the perceived stereotypicality of black defendants convicted of murdering black victims did not predict death sentencing,” the authors write. Those who were perceived as ”more black” received the death penalty 45 percent of the time, compared to 46.6 percent of those perceived as ”less black.”

”Thus defendants who were perceived to be more stereotypically black were more likely to be sentenced to death only when their victims were white,” the study says.


According to Eberhardt, the lower rates of death penalty convictions may be attributed to the fact that jurors regard black-on-white crime as interracial conflict compared to black-on-black crime, which could be viewed as interpersonal. ”These research findings augment and complicate the current body of evidence regarding the role of race in capital sentencing,” the researchers write. ”Our findings suggest that in cases involving a black defendant and a white victim-cases in which the likelihood of the death penalty is already high-jurors are influenced not simply by the knowledge that the defendant is black, but also by the extent to which the defendant appears stereotypically black. The present research demonstrates that in actual sentencing decisions, jurors may treat these traits as powerful cues to deathworthiness.”

From Stanford University

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