The killers of white people in Louisiana are roughly five times as likely to be sentenced to death as the murderers of black people, according to a study released last month.
Meanwhile, black people account for 72 percent of all homicide victims in the state — a comparison the report’s authors say shows implicit bias in the way juries and the courts go about punishing killers based on the race and gender of a victim.
The report, by University of North Carolina political science professor Frank Baumgartner and documentation specialist Tim Lyman, will be published in the fall edition of the Loyola University of New Orleans Journal of Public Interest Law.
“I think there’s the death penalty that we might wish we had, and then there’s the death penalty that we really do have,” said Baumgartner, who earlier this year published a nationwide study, partially titled “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter,” which showed similar findings.
“What are the racial and gender dynamics of which lives are said to be worthy of executing the offender, and which are not? And how just is that?” he asked.
When it comes to executions, Louisiana is “an even more extreme example” of racial disparities compared with the rest of the U.S., Baumgartner said. In Louisiana, killers of black men are executed at a rate of 0.236 per 1,000 homicides, but nationwide, at least 0.94 murderers of black men are executed per 1,000 homicides, he said.
A Louisiana legislator criticized the report, saying faulty methodology led to skewed findings.
The study considered all 225 people sentenced to death in Louisiana from 1976 through July 2015, resulting in 28 executions, the last of which occurred in 2010. Of those sentenced to death, 64 percent of their victims were white and 33 percent were black, with another 3 percent labeled as “other,” according to the report.
Those numbers stand in contrast to how killings play out overall in the state. Black men, in particular, are more likely to be murdered than are other groups. Black men constituted 61 percent of all homicide victims in the state, the report says, while white men made up 19 percent; white women, 7 percent; and black women, 12 percent. (The remaining percentage is labeled “other.”)
Killings of white people are 10 times more likely to result in an execution in Louisiana than those involving black victims, the study concludes. And it asserts that there is no documented case in the history of Louisiana in which a white person was executed for murdering a black man.
“The facts detailed in this study remove confidence in the state’s ability to make a fair determination of who should live and who should die, and further illuminate how the system values white lives more than black ones,” said Beth Compa, a staff attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based advocacy group.
But state Rep. Joseph Lopinto III, R-Metairie, who is chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee and last year sponsored a measure that would have made it easier for the state to execute people, pointed out potential flaws in the study. Its focus on victims of first-degree murder — a crime eligible for the death penalty — juxtaposed with all murder victims is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, he said.
“Black males are a lot more susceptible to being a second-degree murder charge instead of a first-degree murder charge, from a victim’s standpoint,” he said.
When white women are murdered, he alleged, it’s often in conjunction with another crime such as a robbery, which could elevate the case to first-degree murder, rather than second-degree murder, which can’t result in capital punishment. A more coherent study would have focused only on victims of first-degree murder, he said.
“It’s bogus,” Lopinto said. “A person putting a study like that together is obviously against the death penalty.”
Baumgartner responded that his report “is a very simple comparison, and it’s an effort to elucidate the facts about the death penalty.”
Jim Craig, co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at New Orleans, a civil rights legal organization that recently claimed bail procedures discriminate against the poor, praised the report, saying, “This disturbing and powerful study demonstrates that generations of racism in the Louisiana criminal justice system have bequeathed a continuing legacy in the charging practices of our prosecutors and the sentencing decisions of our juries.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.