PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths

October 26, 2017

No racial bias in prosecutor decisions or defendants who receive death penalties found by Penn State Study

Harrisburg, PA – A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

The report also found that aggravating circumstances were filed in a larger percentage of cases involving White defendants than Black defendants. Under Pennsylvania law, prosecutors are required to identify well-defined aggravating circumstances for the Commonwealth to consider seeking the death penalty.

The study noted “[O]ur findings are largely consistent with the notion that legally relevant factors are likely the primary factors that shape interpretations of blameworthiness and dangerousness that theoretically drive the punishment decisions we examined.” The report does note that the race of the victim might shape definitions of blameworthiness. However, the report noted that this difference was not in combination with the race or ethnicity of the defendant. Rather, the report also specifically stated that “Black defendants with White victims were not at greater risk to receive the death penalty. . . .”

PDAA obtained an advance draft copy of the report, but the Commission has not yet made it public. The report is based on responses researchers received from 18 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.