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PolitiFact Florida On Blacks 'Grossly Overrepresented' On State’s Death Row

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The swirl of controversy after the decision by Orange County State Attorney Aramis Ayala not to apply the death penalty in cases assigned to her has filtered down to a discussion of cases on Florida's death row.

Coming to her defense, state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando said, "The state has the second-largest number of death row inmates in the country, after California, and African-Americans are grossly over represented on Florida’s death row."

Bracy, chairman of the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee, defended Ayala’s right to make that call and criticized Gov. Rick Scott’s reaction in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling on his statement:

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel

Florida’s death row statistics

Sheer numbers don’t say very much about racial discrepancies of death row inmates. (There are more white inmates than black inmates among the 371 members of Florida’s death row.)

Bracy’s point about overrepresentation compares African-American inmates on death row compared to African-Americans’ share of the general population.

African-Americans in Florida comprise about 17 percent of the population, according to the 2015 census.

But they make up about 39 percent of the death row population.

Based on the data, African-Americans make up twice as large of a share of death row inmates as a share of the state population.

he Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nationally between 1980-2008, 52.5 percent of homicide convicts were African-American while 45.3 percent were white. In 2015, 36.7 percent of homicide convicts were African-American while 30.2 percent were white.

"The difference between the makeup of death row and the makeup of the general population is attributable to the difference in offending rates, not bias in the system," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

Evidence for racial disparities

Studies show sentencing in death penalty cases often depends more heavily on the race of the victim than the killer.

No white person has ever been executed for killing a black person, said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado professor who has studied death penalty sentencing in Florida.

In a 1991 study, Radelet (then at the University of Florida) found the odds of a death sentence for those who kill white people are about 3.4 times higher than for those who kill African-Americans in Florida.

"All the research in Florida has found that the race of the victim is a more powerful predictor of death sentencing than the race of the defendant...," he told PolitiFact Florida. "It is true that every homicide cases is different, but even after looking at roughly similar cases (multiple murders, murders that have accompanying felony circumstances, etc.) we find the patterns of bias."

Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia School of Law, reached a similar conclusion in his research at the national level.

Garrett analyzed data on all death sentencing by county from 1990 to 2016, seeking to answer the question of why a few counties, but not the bulk, still impose death sentences.

He found that death sentences are strongly associated with urban, populous counties as well as counties that have large black populations. Garrett also found that counties with more white victims of homicide have more death sentencing.

Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina political science professor, described a similar pattern in a 2016 Albany Law Review article after he examined national data on race and homicide between 1976 through 2014.

In Florida, Baumgartner found "tremendous disparities" depending upon the race and gender of the victim.

He found that 72 percent of all executions in Florida were for crimes involving white victims despite the fact that 56 percent of all homicide victims are white. He argues that bias can enter the system at many points -- starting with a prosecutor’s decision about how to charge the crime and ultimately decisions by juries.

The "why" isn’t as easy to answer. National data show that more blacks than whites are convicted of homicides. However, research repeatedly shows that the victim’s race affects a defendant’s sentence: no white person has been executed for killing a black person in Florida.

We rate Bracy’s statement Mostly True.

Copyright 2017 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.