A test of racial bias in capital sentencing

Eliana La Ferrara and Alberto Alesina.

American Economic Association

Photo: AEA

Published in:

American Economic Review 2014 104 (11) pp. 3397-3433.

DOI: 10.1257/aer.104.11.3397


We collect a new dataset on capital punishment in the United States and we propose a test of racial bias based upon patterns of sentence reversals. We model the courts as minimizing type I and II errors. If trial courts were unbiased, conditional on defendant’s race the error rate should be independent of the victim’s race. Instead we uncover 3 and 9 percentage points higher reversal rates in direct appeal and habeas corpus cases, espectively, against minority defendants who killed whites. The pattern for white defendants is opposite but not statistically significant. This bias is confined to Southern states.


Published June 29, 2015 1:49 PM - Last modified June 29, 2015 1:49 PM