A Critical Examination of the “White Victim Effect” and Death Penalty Decision-Making from a Propensity Score Matching Approach: The North Carolina Experience

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Purpose: Death penalty research has rather consistently demonstrated a statistically significant relationship between defendant race and victim race in general, and for the Black defendant/White victim race dyad specifically. The bulk of this evidence has been derived from correlational studies and from cases over relatively condensed time frames.

Methods: The current study uses data from North Carolina (n = 1,113) over several decades (1977–2009) to evaluate the link between defendant/victim racial dyad and jury death penalty decision-making.

Results: Results suggest that there is an apparent “White victim effect” that can be observed in death penalty decision-making in traditional logistic regression models. Yet, once cases are matched via propensity score matching on approximately 50 case characteristics/confounders including the type of aggravators and mitigators accepted by the jury in addition to the number of aggravators and mitigators accepted, the relationship is rendered insignificant. Furthermore, these results hold for a defendant of any race killing a White victim and for the “most disadvantaged” situation for Black defendants (e.g., cases with White victims).

Conclusions: The “White victim effect” on capital punishment decision-making is better considered as a “case effect” rather than a “race effect.”

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Journal of Criminal Justice, v. 42, issue 5, p. 384-398