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Stereotypically ‘Black-looking’ Criminals More Likely to Get Death Sentence, Researchers Find

Male murderers with stereotypically “Black-looking” features are more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than lighter-skinned African-American defendants, provided the victim in both situations is White, Stanford University researchers have found. The relationship between physical appearance and the death sentence disappears, however, when both the murderers and their victims are Black.

“Race clearly matters in criminal justice in ways in which people may or may not be consciously aware,” says Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology at Stanford. “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 were published in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science. “Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes” is co-authored by Dr. Paul G. Davies, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; Dr. Valerie J. Purdie-Vaughns, an assistant professor at Yale University; and Cornell University law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, an expert on the death penalty.

Eberhardt, who studies race and criminality, says she wanted to find out whether stereotyping involving Blacks might affect sentencing outcomes in capital cases. She also was interested in whether the race of the victim would change the outcome. In both cases, the answer turned out to be yes. According to the study, 57.5 percent of defendants with stereotypically Black features — defined as thick lips, dark skin and broad noses — were sentenced to death. Only 24.4 percent of Black men without those features received the death penalty. The disparity doesn’t hold up when it comes to Black-on-Black homicide, however.

“There was no relationship between defendants’ physical appearances and the sentences they received,” Eberhardt says. “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 researchers used a 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.

Diverse staff reports

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