Saturday, May 07, 2005

Unfair Death Penalty or Unfair Reporting?

Putting to one side the important questions of whether the death penalty is morally justified, effective in meeting its stated goals or fair as practiced, one wonders if the recently-reported Associated Press study on the death penalty in Ohio is itself fair or honest, rather than an advocacy piece.

Among the study's conclusions (as reported in the NY Times) are that:

Ohio's death penalty has been inconsistently applied since it was enacted in 1981, according to a first-ever analysis by The Associated Press. Race, the extensive use of plea bargains and even where a crime has been committed all play a role in who is sentenced to death.
In its research, the AP analyzed 1,936 indictments reported to the Ohio Supreme Court from October 1981 through 2002.
Among the findings:
--Offenders facing a death penalty charge for killing a white person were two times more likely to go to death row than if they had killed a black victim. Death sentences were handed down in 18 percent of cases where the victims were white, compared with 8.5 percent of cases where victims were black.
. . .
--In Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, just 8 percent of offenders charged with a capital crime received a death sentence. In conservative Hamilton County, 43 percent of capital offenders ended up on death row.

I have not found a link to the study, so I of course hold open the possibility that the authors considered and controlled for this, but one reading of the results is that:
(1) communities follow different standards in imposing the death penalty;
(2) communities that are aligned with the Democratic Party are less likely to impose the death penalty; and
(3) African-American communities tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party.

The three factors listed above, if true, would explain the apparent finding that criminals are less likely to be sentenced to death in communities that are predominately African-American (and thus, presumably, where the victims are predominately African-American) and more likely to be sentenced to death in communities that are predominately Caucasian (and thus, presumably, where the victims are predominately Caucasian). Is this a problem? Perhaps. It would mean that justice was being administered differently in one community within a state than in another. However, this is not news. Nor does it say anything about what the right result is.

I do not mean to claim that decisions involving the death penalty are not infected with considerations of race (and class and sex). My intuition is that they are, although I know that this actually is quite hard to prove empirically. However, if the authors of the study did not consider and control for the obvious points I have made above, they have crossed the line from reporting to advocacy by ignoring less sinister explanations for the phenomena they observed than white racism.

Anyone have a link to the study?

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