Capital Punishment and the Legacies of Slavery and Lynching in the United States

Abstract The United States is nearly alone among peer western nations in its continuing use of capital punishment. Capital punishment in the United States is a racialized form of social control: those convicted of the murder of Whites are much more likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted for the murder of Blacks. Capital punishment is most common in areas where the lynching of Blacks occurred more frequently and in states which had legal slavery as of 1860. Accordingly, scholars have debated whether capital punishment reflects a legacy of lynching or a legacy of slavery. We show that although capital punishment is associated with county-level lynching, the association disappears when accounting for county and state-level variation in the practice of slavery. Whether a county was in a state with legal slavery as of 1860 predicts rates of both Black and White executions, suggesting that slavery’s state-level institutional legacy is central to contemporary capital punishment.

David Rigby
Lecturer of Sociology

My research interests include distributed robotics, mobile computing and programmable matter.