Victim Race a Factor in PA Death Penalty, Study Says

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A study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black, the Associated Press reports. The report concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent. When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower. “The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” said the report. Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness. The findings are expected to be incorporated into a review of the death penalty that Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed in 2015.

The report found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties. “A given defendant’s chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” it concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.” Lisette McCormick, the commission’s director, said the variations suggest an arbitrary element in the justice system. “A system in which a death sentence can be imposed must be uniform across the state,” she said. “The chances of having the death penalty imposed should not vary depending on where you live.” Pennsylvania’s death row has shrunk to 157 men and only three have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1970s. The study noted that blacks make up 12 percent of the state population, yet they make up more than half of those sentenced to death.

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