An Examination of Defendant Sex Disparity in Capital Sentencing: A Propensity Score Matching Approach

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Death penalty, Defendant sex, Juror decision-making, Propensity score matching

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Although much prior work has examined the influence of extralegal factors on jury capital sentencing decision-making, the influence of defendant sex has been largely omitted from previous investigations. Using propensity score matching methods, the current study analyzes data from the North Carolina Capital Sentencing Project to examine whether “sex matters” in capital sentencing. Findings demonstrated that prior to matching there was a significant difference in the likelihood of receiving the death penalty for female and male defendant cases; however, after matching cases on an array of legal and extralegal case characteristics, these differences were no longer significant. Further results revealed that male defendants’ cases included different aggravating and mitigating factors than female defendants’ cases and that female defendants had limited “paths” to capital trials. Findings suggest that any apparent sex effects that are observed in capital sentencing stem from real differences in the case characteristics found in female and male defendants’ cases rather than any direct effects of defendant sex on jury decision-making. Study limitations and implications for death penalty research are also discussed.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

American Journal of Criminal Justice, v. 39, issue 4, p. 681-697