NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing

Alberto F. Alesina, Eliana La Ferrara

NBER Working Paper No. 16981
Issued in April 2011
NBER Program(s):   LE

We propose a test of bias based upon patterns of judicial errors. We model the trial court as minimizing a weighted sum of type I and II errors. We define racial bias a situation where the weight depends on defendant/victim race. If the court is unbiased, the error rate should be independent of the combination defendant/victim race. We test this prediction using an original dataset on all capital appeals in 1973-1995. We find that in the first and last stage of appeal the probability of error is 3 and 9 percentage points higher for minority defendants who killed white (vs. minority) victims.

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This paper was revised on July 29, 2013

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w16981

Published: Alesina, Alberto, and Eliana La Ferrara. 2014. "A Test of Racial Bias in Capital Sentencing." American Economic Review, 104(11): 3397-3433. citation courtesy of

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