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Vol. 107, Issue 6


Getting to Death: Race and the Paths of Capital Cases After Furman

Jeffrey Fagan, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Epidemiology, Columbia University; Garth Davies, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Simon Fraser University; and Raymond Paternoster, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland

1 Sep 2022

Decades of research on the administration of the death penalty have recognized the persistent arbitrariness in its implementation and the racial inequality in the selection of defendants and cases for capital punishment. This Article provides new insights into the combined effects of these two constitutional challenges. We show how these features of post-Furman capital punishment operate at each stage of adjudication, from charging death-eligible cases to plea negotiations to the selection of eligible cases for execution and ultimately to the execution itself, and how their effects combine to sustain the constitutional violations first identified 50 years ago in Furman. Analyzing a dataset of 2,328 first-degree murder convictions in Georgia from 1995–2004 that produced 1,317 death eligible cases, we show that two features of these cases combine to produce a small group of persons facing execution: victim race and gender, and a set of case-specific features that are often correlated with race. We also show that these features explain which cases progress from the initial stages of charging to a death sentence, and which are removed from death eligibility at each stage through plea negotiations. Consistent with decades of death penalty research, we also show the special focus of prosecution on cases where Black defendants murder white victims. The evidence in the Georgia records suggests a regime marred less by overbreadth in its statute than capriciousness and randomness in the decision to seek death and to seek it in a racially disparate manner. These two dimensions of capital case adjudication combine to sustain the twin failures that produce the fatal lottery that is the death penalty.

To read this Article, please click here: Getting to Death: Race and the Paths of Capital Cases After Furman.