Racial Disparities in Capital Sentencing:
Prejudice and Discrimination in the Jury
Author: Jamie L. Flexon
Publisher: El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2012. 176p.
Reviewer: Janet Garcia | March 2013
Racial Disparities in Capital Sentencing: Prejudice and Discrimination in the Jury is a book centered around a study conducted by Jamie Flexon, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to examine the ways in which racial biases may impact racial disparities in capital sentencing decisions.
This book begins by providing the reader with national data on death penalty decisions, racial combinations of defendants receiving the death penalty and their victims, as well as juror characteristics in capital cases. Defendants who have murdered white victims are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than defendants who murder black victims. Black defendants, in particular, have greater chances of facing the death penalty if they murdered a white victim. The existing debate regarding this racial disparity in capital punishment is described in detail in the opening of the book.
Flexon clearly explains the psychology of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination before testing the role of racial biases in the outcomes of capital cases. In selecting a capital jury, measures are taken to ensure that possible jurors will follow the laws of capital cases and thus apply the death penalty if the case so requires. In order to serve on a capital jury, the selected jurors must be “death qualified” – willing to apply the death penalty if they deem it appropriate in the particular case. Those who are not willing to apply the death penalty are not allowed to serve on a capital jury. The book asserts that it is important to understand the jury-selection process, but it is also important to understand the decision-making process of these death-qualified individuals once they are serving on a capital jury. Flexon warns readers about the prejudices of death-qualified jurors since those who tend to be death-qualified may share similar characteristics, such as crime control beliefs (as opposed to a due-process mentality) and may also be more conviction prone. Flexon states that such a group, sharing a crime control attitude and racial stereotypes, may reinforce their racial biases and subconsciously enable discrimination. Thus, the research presented in the book studies the possible link between a crime control mentality and the presence of racial biases — and whether these factors influence individuals’ support of the death penalty – serving as a proxy for death qualified jurors in the analysis.
As the book title hints, Flexon evaluates whether racial disparities in capital sentencing are due to prejudices and racial discrimination in the jury. Using data from the 1990 General Social Survey, Flexon found that the death qualification process of capital juries reflects the presence of racial biases and crime control beliefs, impacting jurors’ support of capital punishment in sentencing decisions. The book is a valuable contribution to the literature on racial disparities in capital punishment. Flexon’s interdisciplinary approach is a clever and unique method to examine how racial biases may appear in the courtroom and may impact racial disparities in capital sentencing decisions.
Janet Garcia is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.