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Cornell Law School- Looking Deathworthy, Racist Death Penalty, 2005

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Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality
of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing
Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Paul G. Davies, Valerie J.
Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson
Cornell Law School
Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
Cornell Law School research paper No. 06-012
This paper can be downloaded without charge from:
The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection:


Research Report

Looking Deathworthy
Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts
Capital-Sentencing Outcomes
Jennifer L. Eberhardt,1 Paul G. Davies,2 Valerie J. Purdie-Vaughns,3 and Sheri Lynn Johnson4

Department of Psychology, Stanford University; 2Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles;
Department of Psychology, Yale University; and 4Cornell Law School


previously have investigated the
role of race in capital sentencing, and in particular,
whether the race of the defendant or victim influences the
likelihood of a death sentence. In the present study, we
examined whether the likelihood of being sentenced to
death is influenced by the degree to which a Black defendant is perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance. Controlling for a wide array of factors, we found
that in cases involving a White victim, the more stereotypically Black a defendant is perceived to be, the more
likely that person is to be sentenced to death.
Race matters in capital punishment. Even when statistically
controlling for a wide variety of nonracial factors that may influence sentencing, numerous researchers have found that
murderers of White victims are more likely than murderers of
Black victims to be sentenced to death (Baldus, Pulaski, &
Woodworth, 1983; Baldus, Woodworth, & Pulaski, 1985, 1990,
1994; Baldus, Woodworth, Zuckerman, Weiner, & Broffitt, 1998;
Bowers, Pierce, & McDevitt, 1984; Gross & Mauro, 1989; Radelet, 1981; U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO, 1990). The
U.S. GAO (1990) has described this race-of-victim effect as
‘‘remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection
methods, and analytic techniques’’ (p. 5).
In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, the race of
the victim and the race of the defendant each were found to
influence sentencing (Baldus et al., 1998). Not only did killing a
White person rather than a Black person increase the likelihood
of being sentenced to death, but also Black defendants were
more likely than White defendants to be sentenced to death.
In the current research, we used the data set from this study by
Baldus and his colleagues (1998) to investigate whether the probability of receiving the death penalty is significantly influenced by

Address correspondence to Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Department of
Psychology, Stanford University, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford, CA 94305-2130, e-mail:

Volume 17—Number 5

the degree to which the defendant is perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance (e.g., broad nose, thick lips, dark skin).
In particular, we considered the effect of a Black defendant’s perceived stereotypicality for those cases in which race is most salient—when a Black defendant is charged with murdering a White
victim. Although systematic studies of death sentencing have been
conducted for decades, no prior studies have examined this potential
influence of physical appearance on death-sentencing decisions.
A growing body of research demonstrates that people more
readily apply racial stereotypes to Blacks who are thought to
look more stereotypically Black, compared with Blacks who are
thought to look less stereotypically Black (Blair, Judd, & Fallman, 2004; Blair, Judd, Sadler, & Jenkins, 2002; Eberhardt,
Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004; Maddox, 2004; Maddox & Gray,
2002, 2004). People associate Black physical traits with criminality in particular. The more stereotypically Black a person’s
physical traits appear to be, the more criminal that person is
perceived to be (Eberhardt et al., 2004). A recent study found
that perceived stereotypicality correlated with the actual sentencing decisions of judges (Blair, Judd, & Chapleau, 2004).
Even with differences in defendants’ criminal histories statistically controlled, those defendants who possessed the most
stereotypically Black facial features served up to 8 months
longer in prison for felonies than defendants who possessed the
least stereotypically Black features. The present study examined the extent to which perceived stereotypicality of Black
defendants influenced jurors’ death-sentencing decisions in
cases with both White and Black victims. We argue that only in
death-eligible cases involving White victims—cases in which
race is most salient—will Black defendants’ physical traits
function as a significant determinant of deathworthiness.

We used an extensive database (compiled by Baldus et al., 1998)
containing more than 600 death-eligible cases from Philadel-

Copyright r 2006 Association for Psychological Science


Looking Deathworthy

Fig. 1. Examples of variation in stereotypicality of Black faces. These
images are the faces of people with no criminal history and are shown here
for illustrative purposes only. The face on the right would be considered
more stereotypically Black than the face on the left.

phia, Pennsylvania, that advanced to penalty phase between
1979 and 1999. Forty-four of these cases involved Black male
defendants who were convicted of murdering White victims. We
obtained the photographs of these Black defendants and presented all 44 of them (in a slide-show format) to naive raters who
did not know that the photographs depicted convicted murderers. Raters were asked to rate the stereotypicality of each Black
defendant’s appearance and were told they could use any
number of features (e.g., lips, nose, hair texture, skin tone) to
arrive at their judgments (Fig. 1).
Stanford undergraduates served as the raters. To control for
potential order effects, we presented the photographs in a different random order in each of two sessions. Thirty-two raters (26
White, 4 Asian, and 2 of other ethnicities) participated in one
session, and 19 raters (6 White, 11 Asian, and 2 of other ethnicities) participated in the second session. The raters were
shown a black-and-white photograph of each defendant’s face.
The photographs were edited such that the backgrounds and
image sizes were standardized, and only the face and a portion of
the neck were visible. Raters were told that all the faces they
would be viewing were of Black males. The defendants’ faces
were projected one at a time onto a screen at the front of the room
for 4 s each as participants recorded stereotypicality ratings
using a scale from 1 (not at all stereotypical) to 11 (extremely
stereotypical). In both sessions, raters were kept blind to the
purpose of the study and the identity of the men in the photographs. The data were analyzed for effects of order and rater’s
race, but none emerged.
We computed an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) using stereotypicality (low-high median split) as the independent variable, the percentage of death sentences imposed as the dependent variable, and six nonracial factors known to influence
sentencing (Baldus et al., 1998; Landy & Aronson, 1969; Stew-


art, 1980) as covariates: (a) aggravating circumstances, (b)
mitigating circumstances, (c) severity of the murder (as determined by blind ratings of the cases once purged of racial information), (d) the defendant’s socioeconomic status, (e) the
victim’s socioeconomic status, and (f) the defendant’s attractiveness.1 As per Pennsylvania statute (Judiciary and Judicial
Procedure, 2005), aggravating circumstances included factors
such as the victim’s status as a police officer, prosecution witness, or drug-trafficking competitor; the defendant’s prior convictions for voluntary manslaughter or violent felonies; and
characteristics of the crime, such as torture, kidnapping, or
payment for the murder. Mitigating circumstances included
factors such as the defendant’s youth or advanced age, extreme
mental or emotional disturbance, lack of prior criminal convictions, minor or coerced role in the crime, and impaired ability
to appreciate the criminality of his conduct. The Baldus database of death-eligible defendants is arguably one of the most
comprehensive to date; using it allowed us to control for the key
variables known to influence sentencing outcomes.
The results confirmed that, above and beyond the effects of the
covariates, defendants whose appearance was perceived as more
stereotypically Black were more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants whose appearance was perceived as less
stereotypically Black, F(1, 36) 5 4.11, p < .05, Zp 2 ¼ :10 (Fig.
2a). In fact, 24.4% of those Black defendants who fell in the
lower half of the stereotypicality distribution received a death
sentence, whereas 57.5% of those Black defendants who fell in
the upper half received a death sentence.

Using the same database and procedures described earlier, we
examined whether this stereotypicality effect extended to cases
in which the victims were Black. Of all cases that advanced to
penalty phase, 308 involved Black male defendants who were
convicted of murdering Black victims. The photographs for all of
these defendants were obtained. The death-sentencing rate for
these 308 defendants, however, was only 27% (as compared with
41% for the cases with White victims). Given both the low deathsentencing rate and the large number of cases involving Black
defendants and Black victims, we selected 118 of these 308
cases randomly from the database with the stipulation that those
defendants receiving the death sentence be oversampled. This
oversampling yielded a subset of cases in which the deathsentencing rate (46%) was not significantly different from that
for the cases with White victims (41%; F 5 1). Using this subset
provided a conservative test of our hypothesis. We then pre1
With the exception of defendant’s attractiveness, all of the covariates employed here were included in the Baldus database and have been described in
detail elsewhere (e.g., see Baldus et al., 1998). We added defendant’s attractiveness, basing this variable on 42 naive participants’ ratings of the defendants’
faces using a scale from 1 (not at all attractive) to 11 (extremely attractive).

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J.L. Eberhardt et al.

a significant interactive effect of victims’ race and defendants’
stereotypicality on death-sentencing outcomes. Analysis confirmed that the interaction of victims’ race (Black vs. White) and
defendants’ stereotypicality (low vs. high) was indeed significant, F(1, 158) 5 4.97, p < .05, Zp 2 ¼ :03.

Fig. 2. Percentage of death sentences imposed in (a) cases involving
White victims and (b) cases involving Black victims as a function of the
perceived stereotypicality of Black defendants’ appearance.

sented this subset of Black defendants who murdered Black
victims to 18 raters (12 White and 6 Asian), who rated the faces
on stereotypicality.2
Employing the same analyses as we did for the cases with White
victims, we found that the perceived stereotypicality of Black
defendants convicted of murdering Black victims did not predict
death sentencing, F(1, 110) < 1 (Fig. 2b). Black defendants who
fell in the upper and lower halves of the stereotypicality distribution were sentenced to death at almost identical rates (45%
vs. 46.6%, respectively). Thus, defendants who were perceived
to be more stereotypically Black were more likely to be sentenced to death only when their victims were White.
Although the two phases of this experiment were designed and
conducted separately, readers may be interested in knowing
whether combining the data from the two phases would produce

Faces of 15 of the Black defendants who murdered White victims were repeated in this session. Analysis of the ratings confirmed interrater reliability.

Volume 17—Number 5

Why might a defendant’s perceived stereotypicality matter for
Black murderers of White victims, but not for Black murderers
of Black victims? One possibility is that the interracial character
of cases involving a Black defendant and a White victim renders
race especially salient. Such crimes could be interpreted or
treated as matters of intergroup conflict (Prentice & Miller,
1999). The salience of race may incline jurors to think about
race as a relevant and useful heuristic for determining the
blameworthiness of the defendant and the perniciousness of the
crime. According to this racial-salience hypothesis, defendants’
perceived stereotypicality should not influence death-sentencing outcomes in cases involving a Black defendant and a Black
victim. In those cases, the intraracial character of the crime may
lead jurors to view the crime as a matter of interpersonal rather
than intergroup conflict (Prentice & Miller, 1999).
These research findings augment and complicate the current
body of evidence regarding the role of race in capital sentencing.
Whereas previous studies examined intergroup differences in
death-sentencing outcomes, our results suggest that racial discrimination may also operate through intragroup distinctions
based on perceived racial stereotypicality.
Our findings suggest that in cases involving a Black defendant
and a White victim—cases in which the likelihood of the death
penalty is already high—jurors are influenced not simply by the
knowledge that the defendant is Black, but also by the extent to
which the defendant appears stereotypically Black. In fact, for
those defendants who fell in the top half as opposed to the bottom
half of the stereotypicality distribution, the chance of receiving a
death sentence more than doubled. Previous laboratory research
has already shown that people associate Black physical traits
with criminality (Eberhardt et al., 2004). The present research
demonstrates that in actual sentencing decisions, jurors may
treat these traits as powerful cues to deathworthiness.
Acknowledgments—The authors thank R. Richard Banks,
Hazel Markus, Claude Steele, and Robert Zajonc for comments
on a draft of this article and Hilary Bergsieker for preparation of
the manuscript. This research was supported by a Stanford
Center for Social Innovation Grant and by National Science
Foundation Grant BCS-9986128 awarded to J.L. Eberhardt.
Baldus, D.C., Pulaski, C.A., & Woodworth, G. (1983). Comparative
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Looking Deathworthy

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