By Hank Campbell
| May 1st 2008 11:10 AM | Print
Why would a professor in Denver examine one county in Texas and conclude there is a race issue in death penalty cases?
It's hard to say. There is extrapolation and then there is just a question of methodology. Scott Phillips, associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver says that the District Attorney (DA) in Harris County, TX pursued the death penalty when the defendant was African American more often than when the victim was African American.
Harris County, TX, is the capital of capital punishment, executing more people than every state - except Texas itself. Someone has to be number one but it's a dubious distinction because either they have an extraordinary serious crime rate (despite a high death penalty, a real mark against death penalty advocates) or an overzealous criminal system. Phillips believes it is the latter.
He says he studied whether race influenced (my emphasis) the DA’s decision to pursue a death trial or the jury’s decision to impose a death sentence against defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County, near Houston. He spent several years looking at more than 500 capital murder cases that occurred between 1992-1999.
That word 'influenced' is a tricky one. It basically seeks to acribe motive (racial) to the DA's office. It would never hold up in an actual court of law but a sociology professor can be a little more sweeping without proof.
But he says he's not accusing the DA at the time, John Holmes Jr., of being racist. He simply says his research shows a clear racial disparity in the DA’s decision to seek the death penalty.
Ummmm ... if race is the disparity in his decision, that would be racist, right?
Yes, in a clever wink-wink way, he is accusing the DA of racism. The problem is that the DA office has a long-standing practice of removing the race of parties from the memo that the DA uses to decide whether to seek death.(*)
“Discrimination implies purposeful action,” Phillips says. “I am certain that the Harris County DA does not intend for race to influence the process.”
Discrimination actually does not imply purposeful action. Discrimination does not require purpose, it requires plain old action. If there were no action, no discrimination could happen no matter how rampant racism was in any county in Texas.
“Conventional wisdom holds that the race of the victim is pivotal,” Phillips says. “But, current research suggests that the race of the defendant and victim are both pivotal.”
In fact, the percentage distribution suggests that the DA sought the death penalty against African American and Caucasian defendants at the same rate.
The good point he does make, and that merits examination, is whether or not black defendants received the death penalty at a higher rate for the same crimes as white defendants.
African American defendants committed murders that were less serious, according to his assessment, yet the odds of the DA pursuing a death penalty trial were 1.75 times higher against African American defendants than Caucasian defendants.
“To impose equal punishment against unequal crimes is to impose unequal punishment,” Philips says.
The study, “Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment,” will be published in the Houston Law Review this fall.
(*) Obviously I am not naive. A racist seeing the name LaShonda or the name Elizabeth is going to have a stastical guess about race. There are only so many steps you can take and prejudice could also be construed if a male DA had more female death penalty cases but the office itself takes reasonable precautions. So Phillips is actually accusing the DA himself of racism, much as he might deny it.