Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States

May
2014
Justin D. Levinson, Robert J. Smith, & Danielle M. Young

Stark racial disparities define America’s relationship with the death penalty. Though commentators have scrutinized a range of possible causes for this uneven racial distribution of death sentences, no convincing evidence suggests that any one of these factors consistently accounts for the unjustified racial disparities at play in the administration of capital punishment. We propose that a unifying current running through each of these partial plausible explanations is the notion that the human mind may unwittingly inject bias into the seemingly neutral concepts and processes of death penalty administration.


To test the effects of implicit bias on the death penalty, we conducted a study on 445 jury-eligible citizens in six leading death penalty states. We found that jury-eligible citizens harbored two different kinds of the implicit racial biases we tested: implicit racial stereotypes about Blacks and Whites generally, as well as implicit associations between race and the value of life. We also found that death-qualified jurors—those who expressed a willingness to consider imposing both a life sentence and a death sentence—harbored stronger implicit and self-reported (explicit) racial biases than excluded jurors. The results of the study underscore the potentially powerful role of implicit bias and suggest that racial disparities in the modern death penalty could be linked to the very concepts entrusted to maintain the continued constitutionality of capital punishment: its retributive core, its empowerment of juries to express the cultural consensus of local communities, and the modern regulatory measures that promised to eliminate arbitrary death sentencing.

This article appears in the May 2014 Issue: Volume 89, Number 2