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An Exceptionally Bad Atlantic Article on Race and the Death Penalty

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Reporting on race and the death penalty gets it wrong so regularly that it's hardly noteworthy any more.  However, Matt Ford has this article in the Atlantic that is exceptionally bad even by the low standards of the field.

The subhead of the article reiterates the tiresomely familiar Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator:  "The national death-row population is roughly 42 percent black--nearly three times the proportion in the general population."  Red-hot news flash, Mr. Ford -- death row is not for the general population; it is for murderers.  This statistic and the bar graphs in the article are therefore completely irrelevant.  The relevant first-order comparison is death row v. murderers, illustrated in this post.

But of course such numbers are only a rough cut.  The next step is to do more sophisticated studies that at least attempt to control for relevant sentencing variables.  Here Ford tells the biggest whopper I have ever seen in all the very bad reporting on this issue:

We've long known that the death penalty disproportionally kills people of color. David Baldus, a University of Iowa law professor, and his colleagues studied more than 2,000 homicides in Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s for evidence of bias. Their landmark research, known popularly as the Baldus study, found vast racial disparities in Georgia's capital-punishment system.
Citing the Baldus study for an argument of bias against black defendants is not just wrong, it is knock-you-back-in-your-chair wrong.  The Baldus study found just the opposite.  There was no statistically significant "race of defendant" effect.  This result has been replicated many times, including other studies sponsored by death penalty opponents.  It is the most robust result in the field.  The fight in the McCleskey case was about a claimed (and refuted) race-of-victim effect.  See my OSJCL article for more on that and for the myths of race and the death penalty generally.

For Ford to cite the Baldus study for race-of-defendant bias demonstrates an utter disregard for the truth.

1 Comment

Kent --

You should send this to the editor of the Atlantic and the author and ask for an unambiguous and un-mealy-mouthed correction.

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