The Influence of Press Coverage on Prosecutorial Discretion: Examining Homicide Prosecutions 1990-2000

David Bierie, University of Maryland at College Park
Kathryn Murphy, University of Maryland at College Park

Ample evidence of racial disparity in sentencing exists and the literature consistently identifies prosecutorial discretion as a key pathway to this outcome. Building on extant work, we explore the utility of viewing prosecutors as 'political actors' in order to explain racial disparity in plea bargaining. Specifically, we expect prosecutors to hold out for more punitive sanctions when a case receives more press attention. We expect this because the political stakes change when a prosecution is being covered by the press, and this may influencing a prosecutor's decision making. Using this framework, we investigate whether (1) white-victim cases garner more press coverage than minority-victim cases, (2) whether press coverage impacts plea bargain decisions, and (3) whether press coverage accounts for some of the variation in the relationship between race and case processing. All death-eligible homicides charged in Baltimore, MD from 1990 through 2000 are examined in order to assess the influence of news coverage on prosecutors' plea bargain decisions.

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Updated 05/20/2006