Harris County Death Penalty: Race matters

New study shows race a factor in capital sentences

Anyone who follows capital murder cases in Texas has observed that race plays a role in who gets the death penalty and who doesn't. It's long been accepted that a victim's race affects sentencing – those who kill white victims are more likely to get the death penalty. Now, according to a new study by University of Denver sociology professor Scott Phillips, the case histories also show that the defendant's race is also a significant factor – at least in Harris County.

Phillips found that a black murderer is almost twice as likely to have the death penalty sought against him as a white murderer. Phillips drew this conclusion not only based on the raw data of the race of the defendant and of the victim but through comparing the seriousness of the crimes. He writes that the prosecution "pursued death against black defendants and white defendants at the same rate despite the fact that black defendants committed less serious murders."

Phillips reviewed all the death sentences imposed in Harris County (Houston) over a period of eight years (1992-1999, while Johnny Holmes was still the district attorney) and first found – as studies all over the country have also shown – that the race of the victim of a homicide is a significant factor in whether the death penalty is sought by the prosecutor and whether it is imposed by the jury. Phillips' study, which will be published in the fall issue of the Houston Law Review, comes to the often-documented finding that "the race of the victim has a consistent and robust influence on capital punishment."

But it is his new findings about the race of the defendant that are most significant. After screening for seriousness of the offense, prior criminal history, and other factors, Phillips compared the rate for which prosecutors seek the death penalty for black defendants and white defendants. Comparing a hypothetical 100 potential capital murder cases trying a white defendant to 100 trying a black defendant, Phillips concluded, "the DA would pursue death against 23 black defendants and jurors would impose death in 74 percent of the cases, so 17 black defendants would be condemned; the DA would pursue death against 15 white defendants and jurors would impose death in 80 percent of the cases, so 12 white defendants would be condemned."

"The probabilities," he continued, "translate abstract numbers into human lives: Five [out of 100] black defendants would be sentenced to the ultimate state sanction because of race."

Another noteworthy finding focused on the role of the jury. David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the director of the Texas Innocence Network, noted "a kernel of good news, which is that ... juries, to a small extent, ameliorated the racist charging decisions by not sentencing all the blacks who committed the less heinous murders to death." Dow continued, "In other words, Harris County juries actually reduced – though certainly did not eliminate – the racist practices of the DA's Office. So while the study sheds a very unsavory light on the district attorneys who made the decisions, it shows juries rather favorably."

Phillips notes that "most people think juries are the quintessential actors in criminal justice. But it's not exactly true. The DA chose to seek death in just 129 of the 504 eligible cases, and the jury returned a death sentence in 98 of the 129. Once the DA decides who to seek death against, the die is cast. I speculate that the juries partially reverse the racial disparities because the DA has overreached in some cases. But the key point is that the juries do not fully reverse. The DA is the quintessential actor."

See the Phillips study on The New York Times website: graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/20080429_sidebar_study.pdf.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

MORE Death Penalty
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Death Watch: Madness and Forensics
Two capital cases raise psychological and evidentiary issues

Jordan Smith, Oct. 4, 2013

Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
Death Watch: Running Low on Poison
The state of Texas has three executions' worth of pentobarbitol

Jordan Smith, Aug. 9, 2013

More by Rita Radostitz
Tents of Hope
Tents of Hope
A Reminder of Genocide in Darfur

Feb. 15, 2008

Think (and Eat) Globally by Dining for Darfur
Think (and Eat) Globally by Dining for Darfur
Local restaurants join in Darfur fundraising effort

Aug. 24, 2007


Scott Phillips, Harris County, capital punishment, Johnny Holmes, David Dow, Texas Innocence Network

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle