Michael Radelet
Michael Radelet, CU sociology professor (University of Colorado)

The odds of a death sentence for those who are suspected of killing white people are about three times higher than those accused of killing blacks, according to a new study from a University of Colorado professor who combed through death sentences in North Carolina during a 28-year period.

The study, which will be published in The North Carolina Law Review next year, was conducted by Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at CU's Boulder campus, and Glenn Pierce, a research scientist in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

“It's just kind of baffling that in this day and age -- race matters,” said Radelet.

Radelet, who is one of the nation's leading experts on the death penalty, said lawyers for death row inmates have been in touch, and the study will be used in appeals cases.

Leading up to the study, legislators in North Carolina had raised concern about the racial disparities of those on death row -- but there was no hard evidence.

"It confirmed the worst fears," Radelet said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that statistical evidence of racial bias could not be considered in individual cases, but that states could pass their own legislation to do so. North Carolina has one of the nation's largest death rows, with 155 men and four women currently facing execution.

The state became the second in the nation, following Kentucky, to allow murder suspects, and those already on death row, to present statistical evidence of racial bias.

The law is intended to make sure that the race of the defendant or victim doesn't play a key role in sentencing. The study by Radelet and Pierce is the first to be released since North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act.

Radelet and Pierce examined 15,281 homicides in North Carolina between 1980 and 2007, of which 368 resulted in death sentences for those convicted.

For their research, they used reports from the FBI and records from the North Carolina Department of Correction and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

They gathered information on all death row cases in which the victim was either black or white, and they eliminated the other 16 cases from their study.

The authors also looked for any additional factors -- such as multiple victims or homicides accompanied by an additional felony, such as rape or robbery -- that might explain the disparity in death penalty sentencing. These additional factors partially explained death penalty decisions, but even after statistically controlling for their effect, race remained an important predictor of who was sentenced to death.

The study found that the odds of receiving a death sentence in North Carolina “in a white victim case are on average 2.96 times higher than are the odds of a death sentence in a black victim case." 

"It turns out the race of the defendant doesn't matter at all," Radelet said. "It all depends on the race of the victims."

The finding is statistically significant and the probability of obtaining a similar result if racial bias were not an option is less than 5 percent, according to the authors.

A similar study that Radelet conducted in Colorado yielded similar findings. He examined cases between 1980 and 1999, and found that prosecutors were more likely to seek the death penalty for those accused of killing whites.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.