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16. A Defendant’s Blackness and a Death Sentence

Sheri Johnson

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Sheri Lynn Johnson, Law, provided the legal expertise in a four-university study that showed jurors are more likely to hand down death sentences when defendants with stereotypically black features commit capital crimes against white victims. It is the first study to examine whether death sentences are influenced by juries’ perceptions of defendants’ features as stereotypically black. Judgments on features such as hair texture, skin tone, and shape of lips and noses of black male defendants were rated by participants in the study, and the responses were correlated with actual sentences received by the defendants. Fifty-eight percent of the convicts rated as having stereotypically black features had been sentenced to death. Only 24 percent of convicts rated as having features that are less stereotypically black had received death sentences. These correlations emerged only in cases involving white victims, not in cases of black-on-black homicide. If potential jurors state in advance that they would be more likely to impose the death sentence when a defendant looked stereotypically black, they would be disqualified from serving as a matter of law. What if a juror is influenced by race or racial characteristics, but is not aware of that influence? There is no recognized claim, by law, concerning unconscious influence.

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