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A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing

  • Alberto Alesina
  • Eliana La Ferrara
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    This paper proposes a test of racial bias in capital sentencing based upon patterns of judicial errors in lower courts. We model the behavior of the trial court as minimizing a weighted sum of the probability of sentencing an innocent and that of letting a guilty defendant free. We de?ne racial bias as a situation where the relative weight on the two types of errors is a function of defendant and/or victim race. The key prediction of the model is that if the court is unbiased, ex post the error rate should be independent of the combination of defendant and victim race. We test this prediction using an original dataset that contains the the race of the defendant and of the victim(s) for all capital appeals that became ?nal between 1973 and 1995. We ?nd robust evidence of bias against minority defendants who killed white victims: in Direct Appeal and Habeas Corpus the probability of error in these cases is 3 and 9 percentage points higher, respectively, than for minority defendants who killed minority victims.

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    Paper provided by IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Bocconi University in its series Working Papers with number 387.

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    Date of creation: 2011
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:igi:igierp:387
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    1. Donohue III, John J. & Wolfers, Justin, 2006. "Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate," IZA Discussion Papers 1949, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    2. Shamena Anwar & Hanming Fang, 2004. "An Alternative Test of Racial Prejudice in Motor Vehicle Searches: Theory and Evidence," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1464, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
    3. Laura Argys & Naci Mocan, 2003. "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? An Analysis of Prisoners on Death Row in the United States," NBER Working Papers 9507, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Grossman, Gene M & Katz, Michael L, 1983. "Plea Bargaining and Social Welfare," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(4), pages 749-57, September.
    5. Kate L. Antonovics & Brian G. Knight, 2004. "A New Look at Racial Profiling: Evidence from the Boston Police Department," NBER Working Papers 10634, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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