Racial injustice has existed and persisted since the founding of our country. People of color face unequal treatment throughout the criminal legal system, and the death penalty context is no exception.

Black people make up 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, but only 13% of the U.S. population is Black.

U.S. Population v. Death Row Population

Executions by Race of Defendant

In a 1987 case, a famous study found a "race-of-victim effect" in death penalty cases—defendants were more than four times as likely to get a death sentence when convicted for killing a white victim than a Black victim.

A 2020 update to that study found the effect even worse when looking at who was actually executed: Defendants convicted of killing a white victim were executed at a rate seventeen times greater than the execution rate for defendants convicted of killing a Black victim.

Executions by Race of Victim(s)

This disparity is exacerbated in cases of interracial murders. 296 Black people have been executed in cases involving a white victim, versus only 21 white people executed in cases involving a Black victim.

As the New York Times put it, “Black lives do not matter nearly as much as white ones when it comes to the death penalty[.]”

Persons Executed for Interracial Murders

This trend is widespread—nearly every state that studied race and the death penalty found a pattern of racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty. For example, in one Louisiana parish, a 1990–2008 study showed the odds of receiving a death sentence were 97% higher in white-victim cases than in Black-victim cases. A 2000 study by the Department of Justice (summary) specifically looked at racial disparities in the federal death penalty:

  • From 1995–2000, 80% of all the federal cases submitted by U.S. Attorneys involved minority defendants.
  • U.S. Attorneys were almost twice as likely to recommend seeking the death penalty for a Black defendant when the victim was non-Black as when the victim was Black.
  • U.S. Attorneys were slightly less likely to recommend seeking the death penalty for a white defendant when the victim was non-white rather than white.
  • A white defendant was almost twice as likely to be given a plea agreement resulting in a withdrawal of intent to seek the death penalty as a Black defendant.

As of July 2000, 79% of the federal death row population were members of minority groups. Today, minority communities make up 60% of the federal death row population, but only 24% of the total U.S. population.

“The death penalty system in Arizona reflects this same history and reality of racial disparities. A 1990s study1 showed, among other things, Arizona cases involving white victims were more than twice as likely to result in death sentences than cases involving minority victims. Of the people Arizona has executed since 1976, 89% of their victims were white, and the remaining 11% were Latinx. Arizona has not executed anyone for killing a Black person in the history of the modern death penalty.

Nearly half of the 115 people under a death sentence in Arizona are people of color. Black people are particularly overrepresented on Arizona’s death row:  15% of death row prisoners are Black, but only 5% of Arizona’s population is Black. Arizona has also sentenced nearly a quarter of all Native Americans facing the death penalty in America. Only two other states, California and North Carolina, have more Native Americans on their death rows.

1 Ernie Thomson, Discrimination and the Death Penalty in Arizona, 22 Crim. Justice Rev. 65 (1997).”

Last updated on April 1, 2021.