This paper seeks to examine and evaluate two studies that focus on the social status of victims of the decision by the jury and the district attorney to impose the death sentence. The first study was conducted in Houston, HarrisCounty. The study utilized data from 504 cases indicted for capital punishment between 1992 and 1999. This study was aimed at testing the assertion that capital punishment is determined by arbitrary factors that are either random or not legal in any way. The study was based on the theory that the legal factors of a case, as well as the social factors, work together to determine whether a defendant gets the death sentence (Phillips, 2009).

The study by Philips (2009) focuses on the social status of the defendant and the victim in the decision to impose the death penalty. The sample for the study included 129 of the 504 defendants for whom the death penalty was sought; 98 out of the 129 were sentenced to death, 29 were imprisoned for life, one of the defendants was acquitted, and one was sent to the Texas Department of corrections for a sentence less than life. Among the defendants that sentenced to death, 37 have been executed while 47 were awaiting execution. Ten of the remaining defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment because of their status as minors while he four remaining died of natural causes while on death row (Philips, 2009). The Black’s Concept of social status was highly influential in the design of the study and formulating the measures of determining the social status of the victims. The independent variables in the study were the five elements of social status, which include wealth, radial status, or integration in the society, cultural status, and respectability of the individual. Control variables were used in the study in order to prevent confounding effects in these cases. Controlled variables in the study involved other social characteristics besides those measured in the determination of social status. Dimensions of the case were also important as control variables in the study. Control variables used involved race, age, gender, form of legal counseling, and previous record of conviction, as well as where the previous conviction was for violent or non-violent crimes. The rationale behind these controls is that the indicators are not similar for the different characteristics, thus their effect on the study had to be considered. Legal aspects of the case, such as the number of defendants, the method used in the murder, type of murder, and the heinousness of the crime were also used as controlled variables (Phillips, 2009). This is because they influence the decision made by the jury. The dependent variable in the study was the likelihood of the district Attorney (DA) seeking the death penalty for the defendant, as well as the jury’s decision to impose capital punishment on the defendant.

The rationale for choosing Houston was the fact that HarrisCounty can be labeled as the capital of capital punishment, because of the number of people executed in its history. The selection of the 1992 to 1999 period was also significant because of the extremely high number of death sentences passed in the county. The findings of the study show that an individual’s social status has a significant effect on capital punishment. The probability of an individual getting the death sentence was six times higher if the victim ranked highly in the social status as opposed to victims with low social status (Phillips, 2009).

The other study described and evaluated in this paper is the paper on reassessing race disparities in Maryland capital cases. The study focused on murder cases entailing a white victim and an African-American defendant. Racial discrimination in passing the death penalty has been an important study point that interested criminal justice researchers. The study analyzes the logic behind the use of propensity score models in the study of racial discrimination in legal decisions. Analytical and conceptual aspects of the research of racial disparity using propensity score models are the focus of the study (Paternoster & Brame, 2008).

The study achieves its objectives by analyzing different studies conducted on the issue by different scholars in order to determine the significance of racial disparities in legal decisions. The importance of the propensity score approach on the methodological aspects of the treatment in legal situations is highlighted in the study. The study also offers a substantive approach to the findings by Paternoster et al that black offenders, who are arrested of murdering white victims, have a higher likelihood of facing the death sentence. The study first describes data from Maryland used in the Berk and colleagues study, as well as the Paternoster study (Paternoster & Brame, 2008).

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The data used was sampled from a total of 6000 cases of first and second degree murder committed in Maryland between 1978 and December 1999. Sampling was preceded by identification of cases that were death eligible. This was based on the decision by the state attorney to file intent to seek the death penalty or the eligibility of the defendant in terms of age, and that the facts showed a first degree murder had been committed. The rationale behind selecting only the cases that were death eligible was to prevent wrong characterization of cases that could not warrant the death sentence in the study. Data on the characteristics of the case, the offenders, and the characteristics of the victims was collected in order to prevent confounding factor that may result in inconclusive findings. The study had a prosecution sample that was a list of all the cases that were death eligible and with complete information. However, because some cases involved the same defendant, there was a defendant sample used for checking the sensitivity of the data (Paternoster & Brame, 2008). The dependent variable in the study was case disposition, while the independent variables were the characteristics of the case and the race of the defendant and victim. In order to make causal inferences in the cases, it was important to ensure that the cases being compared were similarly situated. To demonstrate comparability with respect to the cases, the researchers had to ensure that cases compared were similarly situated. Therefore, the situation of the case was an important control variable applied in the study. (Paternoster and Brame, 2008).

The findings of the study showed that victim combinations entailed an African-American defendant and a victim of white origin was more likely to end in the death penalty. The likelihood of the death penalty in these cases was significantly higher than in other combinations. However, there were findings that showed major differences between this combination of cases and other cases.

Weaknesses and Limitations

In Status Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment by Phillip Scott, the main limitation is the inability of the study to examine the decisions made when the offender is charged or indicted. This means that conclusions made about the decisions by the DA and the jury may be inconclusive. Another weakness is the measure of social status. Although the measures are reliable and reasonable, they are incomplete in that they fail to capture some significant aspects of social status that are influence the decision to impose the death sentence on the defendant. The use of neighborhood and income in gauging wealth fails to consider the possibility of outliers, thus resulting in inaccurate categorizations. The study also has a limitation in the consideration of legal aspects of the case in the decision (Phillips, 2009). Issues such as the strength of evidence were not analyzed in the study, thus may present a factor that was not included in the analysis.

The main weakness of the Paternoster and Brame study is that race is treated as a causal factor that can be manipulated. This makes it difficult to control the variables of the study and answer counterfactual questions. Another limitation is the difficulty in comparing cases involving combinations that are dissimilar. Comparability of the black defendant/white victim and other cases is questionable because of the difference in characteristics. Another issue is the lack of complete background information on these cases. Therefore, some cases had to be dropped from the analysis (Paternoster & Brame, 2008). The variation between the prosecution sample and the defendant sample is also a likely cause the disparity in the data and findings.

How Criminological Theories Address the Topic

One of the theories used in explaining racial disparity in capital punishment is that which incorporates social status in sentencing. Social status, in this case consists of elements such as wealth and other, social integration, cultural status, normative status, and organizational status (Phillips, 2009). The model of social status explains that the social status of the victim has a significant influence on the sentence imposed on the defendant. Social status is the position that a person has in society in relation to others. High social status as per the five elements is given to people who are wealthy, socially integrated, organized, and sophisticated while lowest social status is bestowed on people on the other extreme of this continuum. The model of social status formulated by Donald Black in 1976 provides a method of determining social status and its effect on the decision in legal cases.

The propensity score approach postulates that there are treatment effects in relation to decisions made in cases based on the race of the victim and the defendant. This approach is essential in determining the impact of the racial context in cases involving capital punishment. The propensity score approach considers race as a causal variable in deciding cases. The approach postulates that although race cannot be varied, causal questions and the assignment of weighted scores for different combinations of victim and defendant can be useful in determining racial disparity in sentencing (Paternoster & Brame, 2008). 

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