A culture that is hard to defend: Extralegal factors in federal death penalty cases

Jon B. Gould, Kenneth Sebastian Leon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Empirical research has exposed a troubling pattern of capital punishment in the United States, with extralegal factors such as race, class, and gender strongly correlated with the probability of a death sentence. Capital sentencing also shows significant geographic disparities, although existing research tends to be more descriptive than explanatory. This study offers an alternative conception of local legal culture to explain place-based variation in the outcomes of federal capital trials, accounting for the level of attorney time and expert resources granted by the federal courts to defend against a death sentence. Using frequentist and Bayesian methods—supplemented with expert interviews—we empirically assess the processes determining the total allocation of defense resources in federal death penalty trials at the peak of the federal death penalty—between 1998 and 2004. Our findings strongly connect extralegal factors to the lowest levels of defense resources, which in turn correlate with a higher risk of a death sentence. Far from being idiosyncratic discrepancies, these are systemic and systematic extralegal factors that stand between a defendant and his opportunity to defend against a death sentence. Ultimately, we argue for a reconceptualization of extralegal influences and the relationship between local legal culture and capital case outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3
Pages (from-to)643-686
Number of pages44
JournalJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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