Skip to Content (Press Enter)

Racial Bias and the Legal System

Share This:

Is aversive racism a factor in death penalty decisions? This is what Russ Espinoza, associate professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton, and Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, professor of psychology and ethnic studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, sought to determine last year. Espinoza recently discussed his research.

Q: How did this study come about?
My past research has shown that the race or ethnicity of the defendant alone is not sufficient for jurors to demonstrate bias. This begs the question, how is it that African Americans and Latinos are found guilty more often and given more punitive sentences, such as the death penalty, than European Americans for committing similar crimes?

Cynthia and I examined this from the perspective of the theory of aversive racism, which states that even though people believe they harbor no prejudice toward minorities, there is an underlying subconscious bias that does exist. When jurors can find other reasons besides race to place blame, such as low socioeconomic status, they will tend to be more punitive toward minority defendants and feel that they are not being prejudicial.

Cynthia and I examined this phenomenon with jurors for a mock trial case involving the death penalty that varied defendant race (Latino or European American), strong or weak mitigating evidence and socioeconomic status (SES).

If the aversive racism hypothesis were true, then jurors would not be biased against the Latino defendant based solely on ethnicity. When the defendant was of low SES and there were weak mitigating factors, would jurors demonstrate bias?

That is what we found. European-American jurors found this defendant guilty more often, sentenced this defendant to death more often, and found this defendant more culpable compared with all other conditions.

Q: What were your initial thoughts on the findings and their implications?
Our initial thoughts were that we had found what we were looking for, and this was probably why it was so well received by the scientific community. We now have a good scientific theory of understanding why these biases keep occurring in our criminal justice system.

Q: How can the criminal justice system use these findings?
That is where we are now — disseminating these findings not only to the scientific community, but to state and national government agencies. We plan on displaying these findings in Washington, D.C., and conveying our findings to Congress and possibly the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Eventually, we hope to contribute to submitting an amicus curiae brief, a legal document used for educating judiciary committees, to possibly even the Supreme Court.

Q: What follow-up research would you like to explore?
Now that we have demonstrated that this bias exists not based on race or ethnicity alone but by the combined extra-legal factors of such things as SES, we need to examine if this is primarily for death penalty cases or does this explanation apply to other crimes. Does aversive racism best explain bias toward poor minority persons in the criminal justice system in the U.S.? And if so, then what are the best ways to reduce this bias? As we have shown with these findings, the potential outcomes for this form of juror bias can be devastating, wrong and irreparable.

When teaching “Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination,” I begin by asking students: “If you could push a magic button to eliminate racism and prejudice in our society, would you push it?” Every student says yes.

With these findings, we have shown one small way to push that button. Will the United States criminal justice system push it?

Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit organization seeking to abolish capital punishment, will recognize Espinoza for his work May 7.