From the All-White Jury to the Sociological Survey: Making the Statistical Case against Capital Punishment

Michael McGovern, History of Science

Wed, 03/17/2021 - 12:00pm
via Zoom
Event Category: 
By Invitation Only
Graduate Students

To RSVP, please email

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.

Abstract: "This chapter discusses the politics of race and measurement in the origins of the elite-led death penalty abolition movement in the 1960s. It follows two different efforts by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to litigate on the basis of statistical evidence and argues that the two strategies, often treated separately, formed a common thread and set the LDF toward a close embrace of social science. Whitus v. Georgia (1967) used probabilistic evidence to make a case of jury discrimination before the Supreme Court, while the appellate case Maxwell v. Bishop (1968) relied on a social scientific survey of rape cases in the South computed and analyzed by criminologists. One addressed jury composition, the other, jury behavior. Both raised constitutional claims about fairness that drew on statistical concepts, setting the stage for battles over the death penalty and employment policy during the 1970s. In this informal presentation, I will talk about this ongoing work informally, raising some questions for how to think about Furman v. Georgia (1972), the case that rendered the death penalty unconstitutional, in light of the politics of quantification it largely left to one side. I'm also eager to chat about how to avoid the pitfalls of elite-led heroic narratives while keeping a keen eye on the production of knowledge as a civil rights issue."



Michael McGovern
History of Science

Michael McGovern studies the history of the human sciences, race, law, and technology with a focus on how data travel throughout society, make claims on people, and transform political life. His dissertation charts the rise of statistical proof of racial discrimination in the U.S. legal system from the civil rights era forward by focusing on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's efforts to combat employment discrimination and abolish capital punishment.