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Prosecutorial Discretion in Requesting the Death Penalty - A Case of Victim-Based Racial Discrimination

NCJ Number
Law and Society Review Volume: 18 Issue: 3 Dated: (1984) Pages: 437-478
R Paternoster
Date Published
42 pages
Data from 300 homicides involving an aggravating felony were examined to determine what factors influence the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty.
It was found that the race of the victim was significantly related to the decision to seek the death penalty even when several legally relevant factors were taken into account. The data also revealed that black killers of whites were more likely and black killers of blacks less likely to have the death penalty requested. A breakdown of homicides into those involving a single aggravating felony and those involving multiple felonies revealed that racial effects were stronger in the former category. There was some evidence that this difference in the effects of race reflected a different threshold of tolerance for white and black murders. Black victim homicides resulted in a death request only when they crossed a threshold of aggravation that was higher than that found for white deaths. (Publisher abstract)