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Victims’ gender, race, and child status affected decisions about death penalty in Pennsylvania

The death penalty has historically been used to communicate moral outrage, retribution, and fear about the murders of certain victims. A new study used data from first degree murder cases in Pennsylvania to examine the role of victims’ gender and race in prosecutors’ decisions to seek and retract the death penalty, and juries’ and judges’ decisions to sentence defendants to death. The study found that victims’ gender and race affected every death penalty outcome, and that the effect of victims’ gender and race also depended on whether the victim had children.

The study, by researchers at Jeffery T. Ulmer, Lily Hanrath and Gary Zajac at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“Decisions about the death penalty are a window into the differential valuing of lives, both defendants’ and murder victims,” according to Ulmer, professor of sociology and criminology, the study’s lead author. “This is the first study to assess the interaction of victims’ gender, race, and child status on death penalty outcomes.”

In the study, researchers examined 768 cases with a first-degree murder conviction in  Pennsylvania between 2000 and 2010. Pennsylvania was observed since the state has many features that are similar to most other states with capital punishment. Data came from the 18 counties that had 10 or more first-degree murder convictions, including from police reports, indictments and arraignment charges, evidence collected, motions filed, and information about the circumstances of crimes’ and victims’ characteristics. The study also reviewed local newspaper reports, appellate documents, and victims’ death certificates.

The study controlled for defendants’ race (Black versus White) and age, as well as for a large number of characteristics of the cases in which they were involved, including statutory aggravating factors, mitigating factors, the type of defense attorney, evidence strength, and other characteristics of offenses.

The study found no overall difference between cases with male and female victims in terms of the likelihood of prosecutors seeking the death penalty. When prosecutors took the death penalty off the table by retracting a death filing, they were more likely to do so in cases with female victims, and less likely to do so when the victim was White, the study found.

Looking at the intersection of race and gender, the study found that when prosecutors sought the death penalty, they were more likely to uphold that decision in cases with White male victims than in cases with Black female victims. Similarly, prosecutors were more likely to hold to their decisions to seek the death penalty in cases in which the victim was a White woman than in cases in which the victim was a Black woman. And they were more likely to go forward with those decisions in cases with Black male victims than in cases with Black female victims.

Cases with White female victims, White male victims, and Black male victims were all more likely to receive a death sentence than were cases with Black female victims. Specifically, cases with White male victims were 35 to 37 percent more likely to receive death sentences than those with Black female victims. Cases with White female victims were 39 to 43 percent more likely to receive death sentences than those with Black female victims.

Prosecutors were 20 percent more likely to seek death in cases with White male victims who had children. The study found little difference in seeking the death penalty for Black female victims and White male victims without children. Moreover, prosecutors were 30 percent less likely to retract a death filing in cases where victims were Black males with children.

Cases with White male victims who had children were more likely to result in death sentences than cases in which victims were Black women—with or without children—and defendants in cases with Black women victims who had children were not any more likely to receive the death penalty. And juries and judges gave death sentences more frequently in cases in which White male victims had children than in cases with Black female victims.

The study’s authors point to several limitations of their study: Since they looked at data only for convictions, they were unable to examine any disparities in pre-conviction decisions, such as arrest or charging. Also, the study lacked direct measures of individual decision makers’ subjective interpretations of blame, danger, and practical constraints, and how victims’ gender and race may have affected them.

The research was supported by the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness and the National Science Foundation.

Summarized from Justice Quarterly, Racialized Victim Gender Differences in Capital Decision Making in Pennsylvania by Ulmer, JT (Pennsylvania State University), Hanrath, LS (Pennsylvania State University), and Zajac, G (Pennsylvania State University). Copyright 2021. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. All rights reserved.

Contact Information
Caitlin Kizielewicz
Crime and Justice Research Alliance
(412) 554-0074
ckiz@crimeandjusticeresearchalliance.org