SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Sept. 23, 2005. Weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court is to issue its’ decisions in three California death penalty cases involving an African-American, a Latino and a Native American man, the first statewide study examining how race, ethnicity, and geography affect death sentencing in California has been made public. 

The study, entitled “The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-99” (forthcoming, Santa Clara Law Review Vol. 46), concludes that the race and ethnicity of the victim and the location of the crime play a critical role in determining who will be sentenced to death.

Study authors, Glenn Pierce, of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, and Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, examined all California homicides committed between Jan.1, 1990, and Dec. 31, 1999, using data from the FBI and the California Office of Vital Statistics, as well as other sources.

“This study forces the people in California to confront the unfairness of how the death penalty is applied in this state,” said Ellen Kreitzberg, professor of law at Santa Clara University School of law and director of SCU’s Death Penalty College. “The decision of who will live and who will die in California turns on arbitrary and unlawful factors such as the race and ethnicity of the murder victim or the location where the murder was committed.” 

Key findings of the study include:

  • 80% of executions in California were for those convicted of killing whites, while only 27.6% of murder victims are white.

  • Those who murder non-Latino whites are over four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Latinos and over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans.

  • A person convicted of first degree murder in a predominantly white, rural county (like Napa, King, Colusa, or Shasta counties) is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death than a person convicted of a similar crime in a diverse, urban county like Los Angeles, which has the highest number of homicides in the state.

  • The death rate by homicide in California varies substantially by race. African Americans are six times more likely to be murdered than whites.

The Dean of the Santa Clara University Law School, Donald J. Polden, dean of SCU School of Law submitted the report to the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice as the Commission prepares to hold its second meeting, on Sept. 27-28 in Sacramento.

Polden’s letter to the Justice Commission said, “[t]he study raises significant questions about whether the death penalty is being administered fairly in this state. I urge the Commission to read this study and to further investigate this extremely important topic.”

The ACLU of Northern California, Death Penalty Focus, and Amnesty International USA are also urging the Justice Commission to take action.

The fourteen-member Justice Commission was created by the California Senate in August 2004. The Justice Commission is mandated to study the causes and prevalence of wrongful convictions and wrongful executions in California; examine the safeguards needed to improve the criminal justice system in California; and make recommendations and proposals designed to ensure that the application and administration of criminal justice in California is just, fair, and accurate.
The Justice Commission has a deadline of December 31, 2007 to report its findings and to make recommendations to the Governor and the Legislature.

The Santa Clara Law Review is a legal periodical edited by the students of Santa Clara University School of Law. It is the only legal periodical officially sponsored by the Santa Clara University Law School Administration.The primary objective is to provide an informational tool for practicing attorneys, members of the judiciary, legal scholars and law students. It serves to inform its subscribers of emerging legal trends and developments, and presents new approaches to the analysis and resolution of current legal problems.

About Santa Clara University

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