North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

160 Ridge Road

Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Untangling the Role of Race in Capital Charging and Sentencing in North Carolina, 1990-2016

94 N.C. L. Rev. 1997 (2016)


The North Carolina Racial Justice Act provided that a defendant may state a claim for relief based on statistical evidence of discrimination in capital charging and sentencing decisions. This paper reports the methodology and findings of a McCleskey- style study of capital charging and sentencing decisions in North Carolina between 1990 and 2009. The findings reported here show that white victim cases and black defendant/black victim cases pull strongly in the opposite direction in these decisions. The primary model analyzing death sentencing among all death- eligible cases shows that-even after controlling for multiple measures of culpability-cases with at least one white victim face odds of receiving a death sentence that are 2.17 times the odds faced by all other cases (p < .001). The evidence further suggests that this effect arises primarily in the charging decisions of prosecutors, where these state officials systematically disregard cases in which black defendants kill black victims. The odds of a black defendant/black victim case advancing to a capital trial are 2.6 times lower than the odds faced by all other cases (p < .001). Juries were significantly less likely to impose a death sentence in the few white defendant/black victim cases (odds ratio 0.19, p < .05). When these cases are excluded, the analysis of penalty trial decisions does not identify race effects. We do not find evidence of discrimination against black defendants generally or against black defendants who kill white victims specifically. 


Ultimately, although this study refines the methodology used in previous studies of charging and sentencing in North Carolina, its results echo their conclusions. Our findings are also largely consistent with the broad trends identified in capital charging and sentencing studies across many jurisdictions in the 25 years since McCleskey. This lends credibility to our conclusion that despite ongoing protestations to the contrary, race plays a significant factor in charging and sentencing decisions. 



Please reload