fbpx A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing | Harvard Kennedy School

HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.


We collect a new dataset on capital punishment in the US 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 defendants race the error rate should be independent of the victims race. Instead we uncover 3 and 9 percentage points higher reversal rates in Direct Appeal and Habeas Corpus cases, respectively, against minority defendants who killed whites. The pattern for white defendants is opposite but not statistically significant. This bias is confined to Southern States.


Alesina, Alberto, and Eliana La Ferrara. "A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing." American Economic Review 104.11 (November 2014): 3397-3433.