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Examining Murder Convictions and Punishment

This project has two primary goals. First, we will focus on the same 18 “field data” counties that were used in the Center’s recently completed study of disparity in death sentencing to gather more detailed data on the cases that were charged with second and third degree murder, and/or criminal homicide. The Center’s original death penalty study examined case processing only for offenders convicted of first degree murder, due to limited funding. This was noted as a limitation of our original research, as we could not speak to the processing of all homicides. The goal for the new study is to be able to trace how second and third degree cases proceed through the conviction process, either through plea bargaining or trial. We will also link these case-level data with data on the characteristics of counties to look for patterns in the between-county variations we found in our original study. Second, we will focus on selected counties with the heaviest homicide caseloads from our original study and conduct interviews with the District Attorneys, Judges and Public Defenders/private defense attorneys. The goal here is to better understand this case processing more generally and how the decision is made to seek the death penalty. Very little work has been done on this topic, and it begs further exploration.

Project Team

  • Principal Investigator: Jeffrey Ulmer, Ph.D., Department of Sociology & Criminology ()
  • Co-Investigator: Gary Zajac, Ph.D.
  • Project Consultant: John Kramer, Ph.D., Department of Sociology & Criminology- Emeritus 

About the Project

  • The National Science Foundation made an award of $300,000 to Penn State to support this project over a two year period.
  • This study will build upon the work previously conducted by Drs. Kramer, Ulmer, and Zajac on death sentencing in Pennsylvania.

Research Questions

  • How are level of homicide charging decisions made?
  • How are second and third degree murder cases processed through the criminal justice system, relative to capital cases?
  • How do charging decisions relate to county characteristics, such as demographics, voting patterns, etc.?
  • How do prosecutors make decisions about whether to file for the death penalty in homicide cases?

Project Details

  • Utilize and expand on the case processing analysis conducted under the previous Death Penalty study.


  • Results will inform our understanding of the dynamics of murder case processing across all levels of homicide charging.