Black victims of violent crimes aren’t treated any better by the system than Black defendants …
In December of last year, we wrote about investigative case files in Shreveport, Louisiana. One of the findings in the analysis of those investigative files was this:
Overall, say the researchers, cases with White female victims resulted in the highest number of case file pages (i.e., the most investigative work) and the most severe sentences. In contrast, Black male homicide victims received the least investigative attention and the least severe sentences.
Now, data from the Capital Jury Project has been used to see whether there was a “White female victim effect”. The “female victim effect” describes the tendency for longer sentences or the death penalty when the victim was a female and especially when the victim was a White female who was killed by a Black male.
The Capital Jury Project study involved examining 249 cases of which 57.4% resulted in the death penalty and 42.6% resulted in a life sentence. A little over half (58.2%) of the capital trials took place in a southern jurisdiction. 56.2% of the cases had White male defendants and 43.8% had Black male defendants.
In 41% of the cases, the victim was a White female and of those cases, 61.8% resulted in a death sentence and 38.2% resulted in life sentences.
37.8% of the cases involved White male victims, and of those cases, 59.6% resulted in a death sentence and 40.4% resulted in life sentences.
12% of the cases involved Black male victims, and of those cases, only 38.7% resulted in a death sentence and 61.3% resulted in life sentences.
8.8% of the cases involved Black female victims and in those 22 cases, 54.5% resulted in a death sentence and 45.5% resulted in a life sentence.
Even just reading those numbers, it is apparent that if you are a White victim, your killer is more likely to receive a death penalty sentence and if you are a Black male victim, the opposite is true. The researchers say that the difference is “not as pronounced in Black female victim cases” but for Black males, the difference is statistically significant and sobering.
If that isn’t disturbing enough, comments from the jurors seem to indicate they don’t see the Black male homicide victim as having “suffered” as much as other victims. That is, they perceived suffering for the victim in 76.8% of the White female victim cases but only in 31% of the Black male victim cases. “Nearly 79% of Black male victim cases are perceived by jurors not to involve brutality and another 69% of the cases are perceived by jurors not to involve suffering.”
Here’s a representative comment from a male juror: “you shoot somebody and they die right there and then I don’t think there is any suffering to happen”.
And a representative comment from a female juror: “I don’t know if you’d call it brutal or not. He [the defendant] just got it over with…if there was torture involved then I would call it brutal…but there was no torture involved. He just shot him.”
The researchers conclude that “victim race, not victim gender, appears to be driving juror decision-making in capital cases”. They focus on what they say is a “black male victim effect”: and define it this way:
“It appears that defendants who kill Black male victims are significantly less likely to receive a death sentence compared to defendants convicted of killing White female and White male victims”.
Ultimately, this research finds (through involved archival work and juror interviews) what they found in Louisiana by just measuring the thickness of the investigative files.
Black male victims do not get justice at either the investigative stage or the criminal trial stage. The investigations are far shorter and less thorough than for White victims.
This disparity at the investigative stage appears to be an artifact of what prosecutors deem to be most worthy of effort in homicide investigations, but it is offensively unfair to those murder victims who are Black males, and arguably, to a justice-minded populace.
For all of us, it is a sad statement when a measure like simply counting pages in a prosecutorial file shows us what the system values and then when presented in court, decisions are made that reflect what the system says is valuable.
Girgenti, A. (2015). The Intersection of Victim Race and Gender: The “Black Male Victim Effect” and the Death Penalty Race and Justice DOI: 10.1177/2153368715570060