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A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing

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  • Alberto Alesina
  • Eliana La Ferrara

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

  • Alberto Alesina & Eliana La Ferrara, 2011. "A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing," Working Papers 387, IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Bocconi University.
  • Handle: RePEc:igi:igierp:387
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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