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Study: Defendants With “Black” Features More Likely To Get Death Penalty

Jurors are more likely to hand down death sentences in capital crime cases to defendants with stereotypically Black features, especially when the victim is White, according to a new study from four universities.

Researchers suspect that jurors have equated stereotypically Black features with degree of criminality and vote to punish defendants accordingly.

The study, “Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predict Capital-Sentencing Outcomes,” was conducted by researchers from Cornell University, Stanford University, Yale University and the University of California-Los Angeles. The results were published in the May issue of Psychological Science.

The researchers showed a diverse group of Stanford undergraduates photographs of Black men convicted of murder between 1979 and 1999 in Pennsylvania, which has a death penalty. The students were asked to rate on a scale whether the men’s appearance seemed stereotypically Black. They were told they could base their judgments on features including hair texture, skin tone and shape of lips and nose. The students were not told the purpose of the study or that the men had been convicted of a crime.

The authors then correlated the responses with the actual sentences the defendants in each photo received. Controlling for other relevant variables, the results showed that 58 percent of the convicts rated as having stereotypically Black features received the death penalty. In comparison, 24 percent of convicts with less-stereotypically Black features received death sentences.

However, the correlation only emerged in cases involving White victims. In instances of Black-on-Black homicide, there was no correlation between the perceived Blackness of a defendant’s features and his likelihood of being sentenced to death.

Researchers controlled for nonracial factors that influence sentencing, including aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

— Diverse Reports


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