White victim is key indicator for receiving death penalty in Missouri

Stark disparities in executions
Stark disparities in executions

Homicides involving White victims are seven times more likely to result in an execution than those involving Black victims, according to a recent study on the racial disparities of executions in Missouri.

And homicides involving White female victims are nearly 14 times more likely to result in an execution than those involving Black male victims.

“These disparities are so great that they call in to question the equity of the application of the harshest penalty, adding to growing concerns that the death penalty is applied in an unfair, capricious and arbitrary manner,” stated Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who did the study.

Baumgartner’s study, released on July 16, is titled “The impact of race, gender and geography on Missouri executions.”

Between 1976 and 2014, the study found that the state of Missouri executed 80 men. Eighty-one percent of these men were executed for the murder of White victims.

“This is striking given that 60 percent of all homicide victims in Missouri are Black,” Baumgartner wrote.

White women represent just 12 percent of all homicide victims, but constitute 37 percent of the victims in execution cases, according to the study. Black men, by contrast, represent 52 percent of all homicide victims, but just 12 percent of the individuals who were executed in Missouri were convicted of killing Black men.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, said these statistics do not surprise him, “when you take into consideration that Missouri courts found that county prosecutors excluded Black jurors because of race five times since 2002.”

He said the courts’ finding prompted elected officials, attorneys and others to send Governor Jay Nixon a letter in April asking for a Board of Inquiry to examine the exclusions of African Americans from juries in St. Louis County death penalty cases.

The group said when Black men go up against an all-White jury, they are more likely to get a death sentence. Nixon has not yet acted on their letter.

The study gives their claim teeth. It shows that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than if they were convicted of the same crime in the vast majority of other counties in the state, and 13 times more likely to be executed than if they are convicted of the same crime in the city of St. Louis.

Nixon also declined an interview with The St. Louis American regarding Baumgartner’s study.

Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that from 1980 through 2008, white perpetrators killed 84 percent of white victims of homicide, and 93 percent of black victims were killed by black perpetrators.

Further, this tendency for crimes to be within racial group remains true even among “stranger homicides” – where the victim does not know the offender, Baumgartner found. Black-on-Black crimes are extremely unlikely to be punished with the death penalty, however.

“The importance of the victims’ race in the application of the death penalty has created a system where Whites are likely to face the death penalty only for within-race crimes, and Blacks for cross-race crimes,” he wrote. “In other words, the race and gender of the victim is a key determining factor in deciding who faces execution in Missouri.”

Here are a few other key findings of his research:

● Homicides committed in Callaway, Schuyler and Moniteau counties are 30 to 70 times more likely to result in an execution than homicides committed in the vast majority of the state’s counties.

● A majority of the state’s 80 executions that occurred between 1976 and 2014 come from just three, or 2.6 percent, of the state’s 114 counties and the independent city of St. Louis.

● Eighty-one percent of the individuals executed in Missouri were convicted of killing white victims even though white victims are less than 40 percent of all murder victims in the state.

● Even though the vast majority of murders involve an offender and victim(s) of the same race, 54 percent of the African-American men executed by Missouri were convicted of crimes involving white victims.

The Missouri analysis is based on a larger, nationwide study Baumgartner conducted with Amanda Grigg and Alisa Mastro titled “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter: Race-of-Victim Effects in US Executions, 1977-2013.

See the larger study at: https://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/articles/BlackLives-2015.pdf.

See the Missouri study at: https://www.unc.edu/~fbaum/articles/MissouriExecutions-2015.pdf.

Follow this reporter on Twitter @rebeccarivas.

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