Date of Award

5-2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Political Science

Major Professor

John M. Scheb

Committee Members

Nathan Kelly, Otis Stephens, James Black and William Lyons

Abstract

The impact of race within the American criminal justice system has seen long-term debate and has been studied by numerous social scientists. This dissertation examines the criminal justice system by analyzing data created by the Tennessee courts to determine whether race impacts the administration of Tennessee’s death penalty. This dissertation examines whether race impacts the overall administration of Tennessee’s death penalty, a Tennessee prosecutor’s decision to seek death, and a Tennessee jury’s decision to impose death. The impact of race at each stage is analyzed by logistic regression to isolate the defendant’s race, the victim’s race, and the racial interaction between them. Prior empirical research shows black defendants whose victims are white are more likely to receive death than white defendants whose victims are white. Prior research shows defendants whose victims are white, regardless of the race of the defendant, are more likely to receive death than when victims are black.

The regression analyses reveal after controlling for heinousness of crime and the defendant’s dangerousness that race is not a predictive factor in whether defendants are sentenced to death in the overall application of the death penalty. The findings show that white victim murders, irrespective of the defendant’s race, have slight predictive power in whether prosecutors seek the death penalty, but white victim cases have the least predictive power of all variables that impact prosecutorial decisions. Murders involving black defendants and white victims, irrespective of their racial relationship, decrease the likelihood a jury will return a death sentence. When testing the racial interaction of defendants and victims, the only relationship that is a significant predictor in the Tennessee death penalty are murders with white defendants and white victims. Based on qualitative data from interviews with Knox County criminal court judges, this can be explained by heinousness of crime.

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