It’s when Lott starts citing statistics that his piece begins to fall apart. First, Lott attempts to debunk the notion that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner by noting that white people are executed at a higher rate than the rate at which white people commit murders. That’s true. It’s also a rather facile way of looking at this particular aspect of the death penalty. Prosecutors seek death only in cases where they can show aggravating circumstances — the particularly heinous crimes. If you’re looking at race and execution statistics, then, it’s important to factor in the severity of the crime. And when a black defendant and a white defendant are convicted of murders with similar aggravating circumstances, the black defendant is significantly more likely to get the death penalty. In fact, a convicted black defendant is a better predictor of a death sentence than a conviction involving multiple stab wounds, or a murder committed in conjunction with another felony.
I think the far more troubling measure of the death penalty and race is the influence of the race of the victim. In most states, defendants convicted of killing white people are quite a bit more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants convicted of killing black people. That suggests that, whether intentionally or not, the criminal justice system puts a higher value on white lives than black lives. Moreover, studies that combine the race of both defendant and victim have found that a black defendant with a nonblack victim is by far the most likely to be executed, followed by a black defendant and black victim, a nonblack defendant and nonblack victim, and, far behind, a nonblack defendant and a black victim. These are percentages, by the way, not raw numbers. So they account for the fact that some of those categories have a larger sample size than others. (The Death Penalty Information Project has a summary of all of the aforementioned research, with footnotes, here.)