Death penalty disparities examined

Author: Kevin Fye


Frank Baumgartner, Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke recently at Notre Dame about the unusual imbalance of death penalties across localities in the United States. His talk was sponsored by the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, and co-sponsored by the Klau Center.

Establishing first the relative rarity of death sentences in the US, Baumgartner laid out the framework for his talk. In the past 45 years, said Baumgartner, “When you put the death penalty in the context of the vast number of homicides we have, 10,000 to 20,000 every year, the number of death sentences, even more so the number of executions, is very low…most US counties have sentenced no people at all to death.”

Distribution of death sentences across the US, however, is concentrated and uneven. In the same period, Baumgartner pointed out, Los Angeles County, California has issued over 300 death sentences. Furthermore, actual executions do not even line up with death sentences: Harris County, Texas – with fewer homicides, and public opinion less favorable to the death penalty than the rest of the state – accounts for nearly 10% of all executions since 1976.

To explain the inconsistencies, Baumgartner turned to a theory of complexity. He suggested that most localities, having never executed anyone, will not be likely to do so in the future. Once a locality does carry out an execution, however, it develops the infrastructure and expectation of success that make further executions more and more likely.

Following this logic, Baumgartner posited two counties presented with the possibility of seeking a death sentence. County A has never executed, while County B has done so on a number of occasions. County A asks: “Is this the worst homicide we have ever witnessed in our history, worse than others for which we did not seek the death penalty?” The likelihood is low. County B, on the other hand, may ask, “Is this as bad as previous homicides, for which we have sought the death penalty?” The likelihood is considerably higher.

Calling into question the even application of justice guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, Baumgartner argued that the death penalty is largely disengaged from legal or moral considerations, suggesting that death penalties occur in a pattern determined by random initial causes. “The event itself,” Baumgartner suggested, “is a risk factor for future events.”

Originally published by Kevin Fye at on November 22, 2019.