Little large-scale research has examined the role of race in “justifiable” homicides that do not involve the police. The data examined by The Marshall Project are more comprehensive and cover a longer time period than other research into the question, much of which has focused on controversial Stand Your Ground laws.
In the United States, the law of self-defense allows civilians to use deadly force in cases where they have a reasonable belief force is necessary to defend themselves or others. How that is construed varies from state to state, but the question often depends on what the killer believed when pulling the trigger.
“If there are factors — even if they’re stereotypes — that lead the defender to believe he’s in danger, that factors in, whether it’s a righteous cause or not,” said Mitch Vilos, a Utah defense lawyer, gun rights advocate and the author of “Self-Defense Laws of All 50 States.”
Self-defense decisions by regular people, much like those involving the police, are made quickly and with imperfect information. As a result, a homicide can be ruled self-defense when the killer faced no actual threat but had a reasonable belief he or she did.
That is where irrational fear can come into play. The police, prosecutors and juries may be apt to give killers the benefit of the doubt in situations when they were faced with someone who seemed “dangerous.”
“Tell me that it doesn’t factor in if the person is black when they’re approaching the suspect,” Mr. Vilos said. “It contributes to the decision to pull the trigger because of the fear associated with the stereotype.
“Right or wrong, that’s what’s happening, in my opinion.”
The vast majority of killings of whites are committed by other whites, contrary to some folk wisdom, and the overwhelming majority of killings of blacks is by other blacks.
But killings of black males by whites are more than eight times as likely as all others combined to be labeled justifiable, a racial disparity that is hard to explain based solely on the circumstances reported in the police data and one that has persisted for decades.
In comparison, when Hispanics killed black men, about 5.5 percent of cases were called justifiable. When non-Hispanic whites killed Hispanics, it was 3.1 percent. When blacks killed whites, the figure was just 0.8 percent. When black males were killed by other blacks, and when whites killed other whites, the figure was about 2 percent, the same as the overall rate.
Although the data examined ends shortly after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, reform efforts since then have primarily focused on police shootings. That leaves these civilian cases largely forgotten.
It is impossible to say to what extent the disparities — no matter how great — are due to racial prejudice by the police, prosecutors or juries. One possible explanation for the differing rates could lie in the different circumstances of the killings, including where they happened.
“If, for instance, white-on-black homicides were mainly defensive shootings in a residence or business, and black-on-white shootings mainly occurred during the commission of a street crime, then the [racial] disparity would be warranted,” wrote researcher John Roman in a 2013 Urban Institute study of justifiable homicides.
Although the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report tracks more than 100 details about each killing, the location of the death is not recorded. In addition, some police agencies, indeed some states, choose not to share some or all information on killings.
Still, the disparities in how the police classify these cases remain across widely different circumstances and causes of death. Whether the killer and victim were married, lovers, neighbors or complete strangers, whether they were shot, stabbed or beaten, the trend holds. The killings of black men by whites were two to 10 times as likely to be called justifiable.