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When victims are white, stereotypes of blacks influence who gets death sentences, new study shows

When victims of capital crimes are white, jurors are more likely to hand down death sentences to defendants with stereotypically black features, a new study from four universities, including Cornell, shows.

The study, "Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes," is the first to examine whether death sentences are influenced by juries' perceptions of defendants' features as stereotypically black. The results are published in the May issue of Psychological Science.

The researchers include Cornell law Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, associate director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, who provided the legal expertise; lead researcher Jennifer Eberhardt, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University; and co-authors Paul Davies, professor of social psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles, and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University.

The researchers obtained photographs of 44 black, male defendants convicted of murdering whites between 1979 and 1999 in Pennsylvania, a state that has the death penalty. Stanford undergraduates of various ethnicities were shown the photographs and asked to report whether the men's appearance seemed stereotypically black on a scale of 1 to 11. They were told they could base their judgments on any number of features, including hair texture, skin tone and shape of lips and noses. They were not told the purpose of the study or that the men had been convicted of capital crimes.

The study's authors then correlated the responses with the actual sentences received by the defendants in the photographs to determine whether perceptions of stereotypical racial features influenced death-penalty decisions.

The results showed that, controlling for other relevant variables, 58 percent of the convicts rated as having stereotypically black features had been sentenced to death. In contrast, only 24 percent of those convicts rated as having less-stereotypically black features had received death sentences.

However, the correlation between stereotypically black features and death sentences emerged only in cases involving white victims, the study found. 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.

"That disturbing result, unfortunately, is consistent with previous findings on race and the death penalty, which consistently show that black defendants accused of killing white victims are much more likely to be sentenced to death than those accused of killing blacks," commented Johnson, who also has testified before Congress on racial profiling. She and fellow researchers suspect that jurors have equated stereotypically black features with degree of criminality and vote to punish defendants accordingly.

Assessing the implications of the study's findings, Johnson noted, "Potential jurors would be disqualified from serving on juries as a matter of law if they stated in advance that they would be more likely to impose the death penalty when a defendant looked stereotypically black. What if a juror is, in fact, influenced by race or racial characteristics but is not aware of that influence? The law should find such an influence impermissible, but there is currently no recognized claim concerning unconscious influence."

The study design controlled for nonracial factors known to influence sentencing, including aggravating and mitigating circumstances, severity of the murder and socio-economic status of defendants and victims.

The authors used a comprehensive database of 600 death-row cases in Philadelphia compiled for another study, published in 1998 in the Cornell Law Review, which also determined that the race of both victims and defendants influenced sentencing.

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Joe Schwartz