Blacks With Stereotypical Features Executed Most Often

Juries in the U.S. tend to hand down the death penalty twice as often to black defendants with stereotypically black features like darker skin, bigger noses and fuller lips, than to those perceived to have less stereotypically black features, according to the findings of a new study

Death Penalty:
Blacks with Stereotypical Features Executed Most Often
Fritzroy A. Sterling

The study, published in the May 2006 issue of Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, noted that previous research already has proven that black defendants in capital cases receive the death sentence more frequently than white defendants. The death penalty is, statistically speaking, unlikely when both the defendant and victim are black.

When the victim is white, however, the matter of race as an influential factor in “death-eligible cases” is emphatically evident, according to the study. A team of educators headed by Stanford University Psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt conducted the study, titled “Looking Death worthy.”

“Race and the death penalty is a complicated topic,” communications director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), David Elliot, told IPS. “In Maryland alone, 60 percent of all homicide victims are black, yet there is only one person currently on death row for the killing of a black person.”

The victims of the five defendants executed in that state between 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated, and April 2006, were all white.

Eberhardt and her team conducted the study by presenting black and white head shots, in slide show format, of black capital defendants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between 1979 and 1999. “Naïve” participants judged how stereotypical each of the defendants looked in the pictures by noting facial features such as lips, nose and skin tones. Each feature was rated on a scale of one (not at all stereotypical) to 11 (extremely stereotypical).

Fifty-seven percent of the defendants considered by the participants as having extremely stereotypical had already received a death sentence by juries. Only 24.4 percent of defendants considered not at all stereotypical had received the death sentence.

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