White on Black Killings 8 Times More Likely to be Ruled ‘Justified’

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A new report from the Marshall Project finds that when a white person kills a black man in the U.S., the killer often faces no legal consequences. We speak to reporters Daniel Lathrop and Anna Flag

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are a matter of life and death. That reality is captured in a new report from the Marshall Project. It finds that when a white person kills a black man in the U.S., the killer often faces no legal consequences. Compare these figures. Overall, for every 100 killings, just two on average are found to be justified, but for every 100 killings of a black man by a white person, 17 are found to be justified. Daniel Lathrop and Anna Flagg are the reporters who wrote this story for the Marshall Project, and they join me now. Welcome to you both. If you could introduce us to this project, what you looked at, and what you found.

DANIEL LATHROP: Sure. You covered it really well in your introduction. We looked at justifiable, in quotation marks, homicides involving civilians, private citizens, not police. When you look at those, no matter what you look at, the police cases are almost always found to be justified by police. What we were interested were these other cases, the Trayvon Martin type cases where a black man or boy or young man is killed, and there’s a decision at some point in the legal system to absolve their killer of guilt. We found this disparity, and it was so striking that we felt we needed to investigate further.

AARON MATE: Right. Anna, let’s talk about what the data shows that you found. What kind of data sets did you look at, and what stands out to you as you evaluate your findings now?

ANNA FLAGG: We looked at self-reported data from different jurisdictions across the country. One thing that stood out to me is that in the last over three decades of data, we’ve seen a decrease in the overall numbers of homicides. However, the percent that are found to be justified has remained pretty stable. It hovers between 1% and 3%. The percent that is found justified when we’re talking about a white person killing a black man has also remained pretty stable at a much higher rate. We’re looking at about eight times as often that that type of homicide is considered justified.

AARON MATE: Right. How long of a period are we talking about here, when you say that the rate of justified homicides of black men has been stable and high?

ANNA FLAGG: We looked at since 1980.

AARON MATE: Wow, okay. What are the possible factors that you attribute this number to? One factor that stands out to me as being a possible reason is the influx of stand your ground laws recently in the U.S.

DANIEL LATHROP: I’ll take that.

AARON MATE: Please, yeah.

DANIEL LATHROP: There has been some research that links stand your ground to these kind of killings, although in the Trayvon Martin case, legal experts say that the stand your ground law wasn’t a major factor in the jury’s decision. What we have seen is that before the advent of stand your ground, these disparities existed, and since stand your ground, these disparities continue to exist.

AARON MATE: Perhaps for people who attribute this to stand your ground, that’s giving that law way too much credit.

DANIEL LATHROP: It’s hard to say that for sure. There are certainly cases where stand your ground has been applied in ways that are discriminatory. There are bad cases out there, so I don’t want to diminish this. Overall, I think it’s part of a broader pattern in the justice system that it’s only one really small piece of.

AARON MATE: Right. Anna, in terms of comparing this to other studies, we have seen studies before, as Daniel mentioned, of police killings of African-Americans. This kind of research into civilian killings of other civilians, white civilians killing black civilians, that has not been done as much if at all before, right?

ANNA FLAGG: Yeah. I think the research on that is a little bit more limited. I think we’ve seen a lot of reporting about police killings, as we should. It’s very important, and there have been a lot of high-profile cases, especially as a result of a lot of those iPhone videos have come out. We’ve seen a lot of attention paid to that, but what we looked at here was something that I think has been a little bit less discussed and a little bit less noticed.

AARON MATE: Yeah. Daniel, the number here, killing of black males by whites, if it’s 2% to 17%, so that’s more than eight times are ruled to be justified. In terms of the policy implications of this, your thoughts on that. Could this data set be used in the effort to reform this criminal justice system? If so, in what ways?

DANIEL LATHROP: It absolutely could and should be used. If you read our story, we do outline differences between some of the different departments. We found these disparities all over, but in New York City, we found a disparity that was only a few percentage points, and in Houston, we found a disparity that was 30 percentage points. It is the case that we found this disparity everywhere, but you can certainly use this kind of data, and really there should be better data being collected.

AARON MATE: Yeah. Let me read that out for the audience. In Houston, as you mentioned, 3% of homicides were found to be justified overall, but when it’s a white person killing a black man, it’s 37%. Also, in Harris County, Texas, overall 4% of homicides were found to be justified, 28% when a white person kills a black man. Anna, what other figures do you think we can look at going forward to help flesh out this story more? Are you guys working on more projects of this sort?

ANNA FLAGG: Yeah, for sure. I think we’re definitely going to continue to look at this type of data. One thing that really struck me about this data set is that while of course it’s not possible to pin down specifically when racism is happening and when racism is not happening just from this data, what we did see is that these disparities existed no matter what way we slice the data. If we looked at specifically only killings that involved a knife being used, or only killings that involved a handgun being used, or only killings where the relationship between the killer and the victim was that they were strangers, or that they were in a romantic relationship, or all these different types of ways of controlling for the data, we still saw disparities every time. I think that that’s very convincing and very troubling, and it’s really something that we needed to look into.

AARON MATE: Right. Daniel, you point out in your piece that it’s not just about the biases, necessarily, of juries or judges. A big factor in convictions comes from the work of police investigators and also prosecutors. Can you flesh that out for us a little bit more?

DANIEL LATHROP: Sure. When someone is killed, the first people to the scene of officialdom are generally the police. Everything else, every other decision, really flows from their investigation and the character of their investigation and the way they do their investigation. Ultimately, the decisions about charges being filed are then made by prosecutors, but that information is generally 100% dependent on the information gathered by the police investigation. Rarely do they have much else to go on. What you see is the police investigation shapes the information, the record on which decisions are made, and then pretty much everything down the line comes from that.

I will say, there are also cases, Trayvon Martin, where the police did an investigation, recommended charges, the prosecutor filed charges, the grand jury indicted, and the jury still let the killer’s claim of self-defense stand, so it is a complicated picture, but clearly what you see, I think again and again, is that the character of what happens is highly dependent on how police investigate the case. Then it’s also very dependent on how, we think, prosecutors interact with police.

AARON MATE: Anna, your final thoughts as we wrap, what you think people should take away from this analysis.

ANNA FLAGG: My last thought would be that with what we just saw with Charlottesville, that was a very clear, definite, obvious, violent form of racism. I think what we need to realize is that in addition to that type of racism, there are all these other sorts of more subtle forms of racism where these kinds of disparities exist and are not as obvious, and maybe sometimes are even unconscious. That’s also another thing that we need to keep in mind.

AARON MATE: I want to thank my guests, Daniel Lathrop, professor at the University of Iowa’s school of journalism and mass communication. Anna Flagg is the Marshall Project’s interactive reporter. Their piece is called Killings of Black Men by Whites are Far More Likely to be Ruled Justifiable, and we’ll post a link to it at our website, therealnews.com. Thanks to you both.

ANNA FLAGG: Thanks so much.

DANIEL LATHROP: Thank you very much.

AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.