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An Examination of Defendant Sex Disparity in Capital Sentencing: A Propensity Score Matching Approach

Abstract

Although much prior work has examined the influence of extralegal factors on jury capital sentencing decision-making, the influence of defendant sex has been largely omitted from previous investigations. Using propensity score matching methods, the current study analyzes data from the North Carolina Capital Sentencing Project to examine whether “sex matters” in capital sentencing. Findings demonstrated that prior to matching there was a significant difference in the likelihood of receiving the death penalty for female and male defendant cases; however, after matching cases on an array of legal and extralegal case characteristics, these differences were no longer significant. Further results revealed that male defendants’ cases included different aggravating and mitigating factors than female defendants’ cases and that female defendants had limited “paths” to capital trials. Findings suggest that any apparent sex effects that are observed in capital sentencing stem from real differences in the case characteristics found in female and male defendants’ cases rather than any direct effects of defendant sex on jury decision-making. Study limitations and implications for death penalty research are also discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Reasons for elimination of cases leading to the sample used in the current analysis were as follows: 1) 74 cases were not available for analysis because the jury did not find any aggravators. When this occurs, the defendant is no longer eligible for a death sentence and the deliberations end there. In this situation, the jury does not consider mitigating factors; 2) 69 cases were removed where the jury, despite their instructions, became deadlocked and did not complete the Issues and Recommendation as to Punishment form, and therefore did not enter any information concerning jury responses to aggravation or mitigation. In the absence of a jury recommendation, there is an automatic default to a sentence of life imprisonment; 3) 92 cases were removed because the earliest versions of the “Issues and Recommendation as to Punishment” form presented all mitigators as a group, with juries being asked whether they accepted one or more of them; therefore, they were not required to indicate acceptance or rejection of each mitigator; and 5) eight cases were eliminated because victim marital status could not be determined. Despite the necessary removal of these cases, the resulting data set consists of the population of decisions in capital murder trials where the jury carried out their specific instructions regarding aggravation and mitigation in the sentencing phase of the trial, and where at least one aggravator was found so that the case remained death penalty eligible.

  2. 2.

    The 15 North Carolina counties classified by the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, Inc. (2012) as “urban” (more than 250 people per square mile in density) include: Alamance, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Catawba, Cumberland, Davidson, Durham, Forsyth, Gaston, Guilford, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Orange, Rowan, and Wake County. This definition and its rural counterpart are incorporated into North Carolina legislation.

  3. 3.

    The U.S. Supreme Court decision McKoy v. North Carolina (1990) altered the manner in which mitigating circumstances, a crucial legal feature of the sentencing phase of capital murder trials in North Carolina, are responded to by the jury. Specifically, the Supreme Court struck down juror instruction requiring unanimous agreement on the existence of a mitigating circumstance in order for jurors to consider mitigating factors for the purpose of sentencing. Consequently, the potentially differential impact of mitigation in cases before and after the McKoy decision must be accounted for in the analysis (Kremling, Smith, Cochran, Bjerregaard, and Fogel 2007). We do so in our analysis by controlling for whether the case was pre- or post-McKoy to determine if there is a unique period effect associated with the case.

  4. 4.

    A caliper of 0.20 of the pooled standard deviation of the logit of the propensity score is the methodological “standard,” assumed to remove 98 % of bias resulting from the measured variables (Rosenbaum & Rubin, 1985).

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Correspondence to Tara N. Richards.

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Richards, T.N., Smith, M.D., Jennings, W.G. et al. An Examination of Defendant Sex Disparity in Capital Sentencing: A Propensity Score Matching Approach. Am J Crim Just 39, 681–697 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-014-9253-7

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Keywords

  • Death penalty
  • Defendant sex
  • Juror decision-making
  • Propensity score matching