The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing in California

Michael L. Radelet, University of Colorado
Glenn L. Pierce, Northeastern University

This paper examines California homicides over a ten year period, 1990-1999, and attempts to identify which homicides are most likely to end with a death sentence. We measure homicides with two different data sets: 1) police data, reported to the FBI as "Supplemental Homicide Reports" (which also give information on the number of victims in the case and whether it included additional felonies), and 2) Vital Statistics data, which give more accurate counts of homicides but not as much information on each case. We use the latter source to adjust or correct the former source. No matter which data set is used, those suspected of killing non-Hispanic whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than other homicide suspects. These differences persist even when we examine only homicides with one or two levels of aggravation.

The data also show clear regional disparities in death sentencing, with counties that have a lower population density and a higher proportion of non-Hispanic whites in their populations to have the highest rates of death sentences.

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Updated 05/20/2006