The Source for Crime and Justice Data

Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases, 1995-2000 [United States] (ICPSR 4533)

Principal Investigator(s):

Summary:

The purpose of this project was to examine possible defendant and victim race effects in capital decisions in the federal system. Per the terms of their grant, the researchers selected cases that were handled under the revised Death Penalty Protocol of 1995 and were processed during Attorney General Janet Reno's term in office. The researchers began the project by examining a sample of Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU) case files. These files contained documents submitted by the United States Attorney's Office (USAO), a copy of the indictment, a copy of the Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases (AGRC's) draft and final memorandum to the Attorney General (AG), and a copy of the AG's decision letter. Next, they created a list of the types of data that would be feasible and desirable to collect and constructed a case abstraction form and coding rules for recording data on victims, defendants, and case characteristics from the CCU's hard-copy case files. The record abstractors did not have access to information about defendant or victim gender or race. Victim and defendant race and gender data were obtained from the CCU's electronic files. Five specially trained coders used the case abstraction forms to record and enter salient information in the CCU hard-copy files into a database. Coders worked on only one case at a time. The resulting database contains 312 cases for which defendant- and victim-race data were available for the 94 federal judicial districts. These cases were received by the CCU between January 1, 1995 and July 31, 2000, and for which the AG at the time had made a decision about whether to seek the death penalty prior to December 31, 2000. The 312 cases includes a total of 652 defendants (see SAMPLING for cases not included). The AG made a seek/not-seek decision for 600 of the defendants, with the difference between the counts stemming mainly from defendants pleading guilty prior to the AG making a charging decision. The database was structured to allow researchers to examine two stages in the federal prosecution process, namely the USAO recommendation to seek or not to seek the death penalty and the final AG charging decision. Finally, dispositions (e.g., sentence imposed) were obtained for all but 12 of the defendants in the database. Variables include data about the defendants and victims such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, employment, education, marital status, and the relationship between the defendant and victim. Data are provided on the defendant's citizenship (United States citizen, not United States citizen), place of birth (United States born, foreign born), offense dates, statute code, counts for the ten most serious offenses committed, defendant histories of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, physical or sexual abuse as a child, serious head injury, intelligence (IQ), or other claims made in the case. Information is included for up to 13 USAO assessments and 13 AGRC assessments of statutory and non-statutory aggravating factors and mitigating factors. Victim characteristics included living situation and other reported factors, such as being a good citizen, attending school, past abuse by the defendant, gross size difference between the victim and defendant, if the victim was pregnant, if the victim had a physical handicap, mental or emotional problems or developmental disability, and the victim's present or former status (e.g., police informant, prison inmate, law enforment officer). Data are also provided for up to 13 factors each regarding the place and nature of the killing, defendant motive, coperpetrators, weapons, injuries, witnesses, and forensic and other evidence.

Access Notes

  • One or more files in this study are not available for download due to special restrictions ; consult the restrictions note to learn more. You can apply online for access to the data. A login is required to apply for access. (How to apply.)

    A downloadable version of data for this study is available however, certain identifying information in the downloadable version may have been masked or edited to protect respondent privacy. Additional data not included in the downloadable version are available in a restricted version of this data collection. For more information about the differences between the downloadable data and the restricted data for this study, please refer to the codebook notes section of the PDF codebook. Users interested in obtaining restricted data must complete and sign a Restricted Data Use Agreement, describe the research project and data protection plan, and obtain IRB approval or notice of exemption for their research.

Dataset(s)

Dataset
Download:
No downloadable data files available.

Study Description

Citation

Klein, Stephen P., and Richard A. Berk. RACE AND THE DECISION TO SEEK THE DEATH PENALTY IN FEDERAL CASES, 1995-2000 [UNITED STATES]. ICPSR04533-v1. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation [producer], 2006. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2006-09-01. http://doi.org/10.3886/ICPSR04533.v1

Persistent URL:

Export Citation:

  • RIS (generic format for RefWorks, EndNote, etc.)
  • EndNote XML (EndNote X4.0.1 or higher)

Funding

This study was funded by:

  • United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice (2002-IJ-CX-0022)

Scope of Study

Subject Terms:   capital punishment, defendants, district courts, federal courts, judicial process, race, victims, witness credibility, witnesses

Smallest Geographic Unit:   Federal judicial district

Geographic Coverage:   United States

Time Period:  

  • 1995-01-01--2000-12-31

Date of Collection:  

  • 2002

Unit of Observation:   individual

Universe:   All capital-eligible cases received by the Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases (AGRC) beginning on January 1, 1995, and decided by December 31, 2000

Data Types:   administrative records data

Data Collection Notes:

Users are encouraged to refer to the final report for a full description of the procedures and research strategies used and the results obtained in this study. (2) For the time period of this study, 71 federal judicial districts and 40 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands within those districts have cases included in the database. Districts and states that have information in the data are listed in the codebook.

Methodology

Study Purpose:   The purpose of this project was to examine possible defendant and victim race effects in capital decisions in the federal system. Per the terms of their grant, the researchers selected cases that were handled under the revised Death Penalty Protocol of 1995 and were processed during Attorney General Janet Reno's term in office. In federal capital cases, the United States Attorney's Office (USAO), in the district where the case is prosecuted, makes an initial recommendation to seek or not to seek the death penalty for defendants who are charged with crimes that carry this penalty. The USAO sends this recommendation, a memo describing the basis for it, and usually other supporting documentation to the Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU). This unit removes information about defendant and victim race from these materials and prepares a file for each case. In this context, a "case" refers to one or more related incidents or crimes and may involve one or more defendants who are accused of killing one or more victims. The CCU staff, who also may receive information from the defense, review the materials (and possibly consult with the USAO who submitted the case) and prepare a summary of the case. This summary and the USAO's recommendation is given to the Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases (AGRC). The AGRC hears from interested parties and occasionally gathers additional information about the case, reviews the USAO's recommendation, the case file, and the summary material prepared by CCU staff, and makes a recommendation to the United States Attorney General (AG) as to whether or not the death penalty should be sought for each defendant who is charged with committing a capital offense. The AG then makes the final decision. The AG informs the USAO by letter of the final decision (which almost always conforms to the AGRC's recommendation). A copy of this letter is placed in the hard-copy case file. The final AG decision also is entered in an electronic database maintained by the CCU. This research project examined questions about this process in regard to race, predictability, capriciousness, and geographic effects by investigating whether USAO recommendations and AG decisions to seek the death penalty are related to case characteristics, including the geographic location of the USAO prosecuting the case, the defendant's race, and whether any of the defendant's victims were White. Specific questions about the process include: (1) Are the USAO's recommendations and the AG's decisions racially neutral, or are they affected by the race of the victim, the race of defendant, or both? (2) Are the USAO and AG decisions predictable? (3) Are they capricious (e.g., are they rationally related to the facts of the case and the law or are they affected by the whims of key decision makers)?

Study Design:   The researchers began the project by examining a sample of Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU) case files. These files contained documents submitted by the USAO, a copy of the indictment, a copy of the AGRC's draft and final memorandum to the AG, and a copy of the AG's decision letter. Next, they created a list of the types of data that would be feasible and desirable to collect and constructed a case abstraction form and coding rules for recording data on victims, defendants, and case characteristics from the CCU's hard-copy case files. The record abstractors did not have access to information about defendant or victim gender or race. Victim and defendant race and gender data were obtained from the CCU's electronic files. Five specially trained coders (who worked under the direction of a field data collection supervisor) used the case abstraction forms to record and enter salient information in the CCU hard-copy files into a database. Coders worked on only one case at a time. As an initial step, the coders inventoried the documents in the file and recorded the contents of the case file on the Case Summary Form. The form listed the federal district, the case name, defendants and victims, the capital-eligible charges, and the CCU database AG decision. This form also provided an orientation to the materials in the case file and an opportunity to verify or flag cases with a different number of parties or AG decision that could then be verified by the fieldwork supervisor. Next, they read the indictment, the USAO memorandum, and the AG and defense documents. They then began the coding process, which included reviewing all the documents and marking the sections of them that contained information required to complete the different sections of the coding forms. Case files often contained different and sometimes conflicting information about an incident. For example, Defendant A might claim that he was not at the scene while another defendant or a witness claimed that Defendant A pulled the trigger. To accommodate the uncertainty about the facts, the researchers constructed the coding forms so that both claims were captured. Coders were not asked to resolve these discrepancies. For quality assurance, approximately one third of each coder's cases were validated. This step involved an independent summary review of the case file using the AGRC executive summary document and comparing the information it contained with that coded in the form. Any discrepancies triggered a more thorough review of the case file and coding forms. Coders met weekly with their supervisor to review problem resolutions, retrain, and further enhance coding consistency and accuracy. The resulting database contains 312 cases for which defendant- and victim-race data were available for the 94 federal judicial districts. These cases, received by the CCU between January 1, 1995 and July 31, 2000, were those which the AG at the time (Janet Reno) had made a decision about whether to seek the death penalty for these cases prior to December 31, 2000. The 312 cases include a total of 652 defendants (see SAMPLING for cases not included). The AG made a seek/not-seek decision for 600 of the defendants, with the difference between the counts stemming mainly from defendants pleading guilty prior to the AG making a charging decision. The database was structured to allow researchers to examine two stages in the federal prosecution process, namely the USAO recommendation to seek or not to seek the death penalty and the final AG charging decision. Finally, dispositions (e.g., sentence imposed) for all but 50 of the defendants in the database were obtained from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system operated by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The sentences for 38 of these 50 cases were located by analysts at the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics using data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons' SENTRY database, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys' central system file, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts' criminal master file.

Sample:   This study examined all potential federal capital cases submitted by by 94 United States Attorneys' Offices (USAOs) for review by the United States Attorney General (AG) between January 1, 1995 and July 31, 2000, and which were decided by the AG by December 31, 2000. The January 1995 start date coincided with the inception of the AG's requirement that all death-eligible cases (i.e., not just cases with a USAO recommendation to seek the death penalty) be submitted to the Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases (AGRC). A "case" consisted of one or more defendants whom the USAO charged with one or more of the offenses that carry the death penalty, i.e., "capital-eligible" crimes (excluding espionage). The researchers eliminated two cases and ten defendants from this population that were missing a USAO seek/not-seek recommendation, e.g., because the defendant was a fugitive or awaiting extradition from another country. This left 315 cases and 657 defendants. Only 297 of these 315 cases had an AGRC recommendation, largely because some cases were settled after the USAO submitted them but before the AGRC made its recommendation to the AG (e.g., a plea agreement was accepted in the interim). The researchers also eliminated three espionage cases that together contained five defendants because these cases could not be coded as being White- or nonWhite-victim cases. The researchers analyzed the 312 cases involving 652 defendants with a USAO seek/not-seek recommendation, and 600 defendants with an AG seek/not-seek charging decision (for two of the 600 defendants, the USAO was awaiting the outcome of an extradition decision from a foreign country to which the defendants had fled.) The AG did not make a charging decision for 54 of the defendants whose cases were submitted for review by the USAO, usually because there was a guilty plea before the AG issued a final death penalty charging decision. More than one defendant may be charged with killing a given victim. Over half of the cases involved two or more defendants and nearly 80 percent of the defendants were in multiple-defendant cases. Cases also often involved multiple victims. Data include 488 victims. This count does not include the roughly 400 victims in the first World Trade Center (1993), Oklahoma City, Dar es Salaam, and Nairobi bombings because the CCU files did not contain individual-level data for the victims in these bombings.

Weight:   none

Mode of Data Collection:   record abstracts

Data Source:

Case, defendant, and victim data were obtained from the hard copy and electronic case files of the Department of Justice Capital Case Unit (CCU). Disposition data were obtained from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system or the Federal Bureau of Prisons' SENTRY database, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys' central system file, or the Administrative Office of the United States Courts' criminal master file.

Description of Variables:   Variables include data about the defendants and victims such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, employment, education, marital status, and the relationship between the defendant and victim (stranger, friend, crime partner, parent, sexual rival, rival, family). Data are provided on the defendant's citizenship (United States citizen, not United States citizen), place of birth (United States born, foreign born), offense dates, statute code, and counts for the ten most serious offenses committed. Also provided are defendant histories of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, physical or sexual abuse as a child, serious head injury, intelligence (IQ), or other claims made in the case. Information is included for up to 13 USAO assessments and 13 AGRC assessments of statutory and non-statutory aggravating factors (e.g., torture, endangerment of others, or victim vulnerability) and mitigating factors (e.g., youth of defendant, lack of criminal history, or mental illness or retardation). Victim characteristics include living situation and other reported factors such as being a good citizen, attending school, past abuse by the defendant, gross size difference between the victim and defendant, if the victim was pregnant, if the victim had a physical handicap, mental or emotional problems or developmental disability, and the victim's present or former status (e.g., police informant, prison inmate, or law enforcement officer). Data are also provided for up to 13 factors, each regarding the place and nature of the killing, defendant motive, coperpetrators, weapons, injuries, witnesses, and forensic and other evidence.

Response Rates:   Not applicable.

Presence of Common Scales:   none

Version(s)

Original ICPSR Release:  

Version History:

  • 2006-09-01 The restricted data and documentation have been released.

Related Publications ?

Variables

Utilities

Metadata Exports

If you're looking for collection-level metadata rather than an individual metadata record, please visit our Metadata Records page.

Download Statistics