Sunday, December 15, 2002 | Washington Post | Outlook


Lame Ducks And the Death Penalty

  As if the debate over the death penalty weren't contentious enough, two economists now claim that which death-row inmates are executed may depend on such disparate factors as whether the governor has lost a bid for reelection, the prisoner's race and sex, and whether the governor is a man or a woman.

Those are among the disquieting assertions made by economists Laura M. Argys and H. Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado at Denver in a forthcoming paper to be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Their study is based on Department of Justice data on 5,779 death sentences handed down between 1973 and 1997 in the United States, including 113 cases in which the governor commuted the sentence and 430 in which the prisoner was executed. The data also included personal information about each inmate, as well as their criminal history. To this file the researchers added other facts, such as the race and sex of the governor, whether it was an election year and whether the governor was reelected, as well as details about the state's demographics.

Then they controlled for factors that might be expected to relate to a commutation decision, such as the condemned inmate's criminal background.

What they found surprised them. "If the inmate's spell on death row ends up at a point in time where the governor is a lame duck, this increases the inmate's probability of commutation by 46 percentage points in comparison to an otherwise similar inmate whose decision is made by a governor who is not a lame duck," the researchers reported. (They found that the party affiliation of the governor or whether it was an election year made no difference in the likelihood that a governor would commute a death sentence.) If the governor was a woman, the probability that an inmate's death sentence would be commuted increased by 34 percentage points. On the other hand, "if the governor is white, the likelihood of dying is 55 percentage points higher in comparison to the case where the decision is made by a minority governor."

They also found that women on death row were 89 percent more likely to have their sentences commuted than male prisoners. (There were nine women on death row during this study period; eight had their sentences commuted.) African Americans were "about 6 percentage points more likely to get commuted in comparison to whites," according to the researchers.

"Living and dying depends on factors that have nothing to do with the characteristics of the case," Mocan said.