They argue that blacks and Latinos often are killed in neighborhoods plagued by gangs, while whites tend to be killed in middle- and higher-income neighborhoods where witnesses are more inclined to cooperate with police.
The study took into account gang killings and differences in neighborhood incomes and found no impact on the race finding. But it could not measure the willingness of witnesses to come forward.
How the System Works, and Doesn't
On some levels, the justice system works rationally and predictably, the study found.
People who killed strangers were more likely to get tough treatment than those who killed lovers, relatives or other people they knew. That, experts say, is probably because society finds stranger killings more frightening than domestic violence.
People who committed the most heinous killings were more likely, when caught, to be charged and punished severely. Double murderers were more likely to get the toughest sentences. So, too, were people who killed while committing robberies and other felonies, and people who had the worst criminal records.
But even taking such factors into account, the study found that the outcomes of cases varied according to the victim's race, location and media attention.
The criminal justice system's handling of homicides is a particularly sensitive issue in communities of minorities and the poor, where there is widespread suspicion that authorities place less value on their lives.
That suspicion was voiced by the mother of a black teenage victim who thought that her son's case got short shrift when the killer was given a plea bargain. She asked if the case was "overlooked because of the many cases that our society has, and [because] the poor persons' [cases] have no investigation."
Whom you kill matters more than who you are, the study suggested.
It found little statistical evidence that minority defendants are treated differently than white defendants.
But a higher proportion of those prosecuted for killing white victims end up guilty of a murder charge. And cases are dismissed more often when victims are black or Latino. The study could not measure statistical differences for killings of Asians because there were relatively few.
"The overwhelming fact that determines the likely outcome is the background of the victim," agreed Deputy Public Defender Bruce Schweiger. "If they are white, or if they are black but not from the projects, that will make a difference."
The study's findings are consistent with more limited legal and academic studies elsewhere, which concluded that the court system treats killings of minority victims less severely than killings of whites.
Such studies have been criticized for failing to consider all potentially relevant factors that could explain away the racial findings.
The newspaper's study examined every step of the criminal justice process--from investigations through prosecutions--using available data about race, education and neighborhood for all victims and defendants.
The review also considered the criminal records of defendants, whether a case received media attention, and descriptions of each crime. The review could not, however, measure the strength of the evidence and the skill levels of detectives and prosecutors in individual cases, nor the racial composition of juries.
The Role of Publicity
To assess the impact of the media, the study examined Times coverage over the five-year period.
It found that cases were more likely to receive tougher treatment in the court system if there was coverage.
Cases the newspaper wrote about were less likely to be plea bargained, and more likely to involve charges of special circumstances--making defendants eligible for the death penalty. Those special circumstance allegations also were more likely to be found true.
Past studies have suggested that prosecutors, wanting to appear tough on crime, are less likely to negotiate plea bargains when the media is paying attention.
Officials said that media coverage does not drive their decisions.
A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said in a letter that decisions to seek capital charges "are based on valid, legal reasons due to the circumstances of the homicide and the evidence," not on media attention.
Similarly, Lt. John Dunkin, LAPD's South Bureau homicide commander and a former LAPD press spokesman, said the media focus on some of the same cases that police and prosecutors do--those that arouse community outrage and involve innocent victims.
Police say the media interest in such cases is incidental to them, except insofar as it prompts more people to call with clues.
"I'm not going to insult your intelligence" by contending that all murder cases get equal police resources, Dunkin said in an interview.
He cited a particularly intense recent effort to solve the killing of Viola McClain, an 82-year-old Watts woman shot on the front porch of her house.