Continued Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment: The Rosenthal Era

Abstract

Given the substantial amount of research that has been conducted throughout the United States regarding the relationship between race and capital punishment, one might assume that much of the attention has been focused on Harris County, Texas. After all, Harris County—home to Houston and surrounding areas—is the capital of capital punishment. Indeed, if Harris County were a state it would rank second in executions after Texas. Yet only one study has examined whether race influences the death penalty in Houston. Specifically, Phillips (2008) reports that death was more likely to be imposed against black defendants, and more likely to be imposed on behalf of white victims, during the period from 1992 to 1999—the final years of Johnny Holmes’s tenure as District Attorney.

After Holmes retired, Charles Rosenthal served as District Attorney from January 1, 2001 to February 15, 2008. Did racial disparities continue during the Rosenthal administration? The current research suggests that the impact of defendant race disappeared, but the impact of victim race continued: death sentences were imposed on behalf of white victims at 2.5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race, and death sentences were imposed on behalf of white female victims at 5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race and gender.

Such disparities are particularly troubling because Rosenthal was forced out of office in a scandal that included racist e-mails. Given the disparities, coupled with racist e-mails from the elected official who decides whether to seek the death penalty, the paper contemplates a key moral question: Should the state of Texas be allowed to execute inmates who were sentenced to death in Harris County during the Rosenthal administration?