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Death Penalty and Racism

Death penalty discriminates against black crime victims

Opinion, USA Today, April 28, 2003

Death-penalty opponents have long complained that minorities are more likely to be executed than whites convicted of the same crime. Now a new study points up another troubling racial difference between who lives and who dies: the color of the victim.

While blacks and whites are murdered in roughly equal numbers in the USA, the killers of white people are 6 times as likely to be put to death, according to a statistical analysis released last week by the anti-death penalty human rights organization Amnesty International USA. It found that of 845 people executed since the U.S. resumed capital punishment in 1977, 80% were put to death for killing whites, while only 13% were executed for killing blacks.

The findings point to but one chilling conclusion: The criminal justice system places a higher value on the lives of whites than on the lives of blacks and other minorities. That means minorities who are victims of violent crimes are also victimized by a legal system that fails to provide hem the "equal protection of the laws" they are guaranteed under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.

The report adds to the troubling evidence of racial discrimination against minority victims that has surfaced in other, state-level studies over the past year:

In Illinois, juries have been three times as likely to sentence a person to death if the victim is white rather than black. Then-Gov. George Ryan cited those findings in January, when he commuted 167 death sentences to life imprisonment.

In Maryland, the death penalty is four times as likely to be imposed when the victim is white rather than black. But a moratorium on executions imposed by the outgoing governor has been revoked by his successor. Other studies in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia have shown similar results, as did a review a decade ago by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Other research suggests race-based differences in administering justice are not unique to the death penalty. A major study published by Stanford University in 1995 found that prosecutors tended to stereotype nonwhite crime victims as less-convincing witnesses, and cases involving nonwhite victims were more likely to be dismissed or result in plea-bargains to lesser penalties.

The Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972 after finding it was imposed arbitrarily. 4 years later capital punishment was reinstated based on the claim that new laws would guide judges and juries to mete out death sentences evenhandedly.

The record since then shows the court was right the first time. When a victim's skin color is key in deciding who is put to death, the system not only violates constitutional protections but also is corrupt.

A better alternative to the death penalty is life imprisonment without parole. It protects society from those who commit heinous crimes without perpetuating a deadly system of unequal justice based on race.

The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, in 1990 reviewed more than 50 studies of race and punishment and found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty."

"That ought to really raise concerns and prompt an examination of procedural and other process-related matters" Dan Morales, the outgoing Tx attorney general, commenting on the disproportionate number of minorities on death row.

It is difficult to provide substantial proof that racism is a factor in the way death sentences are being applied in US - although a majority of the americans do believe that the risk of being sentenced to death is bigger for a black than for a white citizen .
But it is not only a question of practice in the courts. There is also reason to believe that black offenders run a bigger risk of being apprehended than white offenders do. There are many incidents of racism in the police force, which increases the chances that the police is more likely to look for a black suspect than for a white.
It is wellknown that many prosecutors in cases with black defendants do whatever they can to have an all-white jury by striking as many black jurors as possible - and not many black defendants can afford a defence attorney who can or will do much to fight against that.
Another factor is that in most states murder is considered a capital crime only if it is committed in connection with another crime like for instance robbery. Robbery is the crime of the poor, which means that it it typical committed by blacks - while the legislators are typically white middle class people who seldom needs to commit robbery.
But if the purpose of the death penalty really is to save lives, why is it worse to take a life in connexion with a robbery than in connexion with a typical middle class crime like tax fraud?

Amnesty International, Dec. 5, 2001:

Racist application of the death penalty

Thomas Miller-El is due to be executed in Texas on 21 February 2002. He was convicted in 1986 of the murder of a white man, Douglas Walker, during a robbery.

Thomas Miller-El, an African American, was one of 15 men sentenced to death in Dallas County between 1980 and 1986. Of the 180 jurors at their trials, only 5 were African American. Using peremptory challenges - the right to reject prospective jurors during jury selection without giving a reason - prosecutors dismissed 56 of the 57 other blacks qualified to serve.

Of the 15 cases, 5 involved African American defendants. All except Miller-El were tried by all white juries. His jury consisted of 11 whites and 1 black, after the prosecution used 10 peremptory challenges against African Americans.

The only black accepted on to the jury was a man who said of execution: "It's too quick. They don't feel the pain... Pour some honey on them and stake them out over an ant bed... That's what I call punishment".

A training manual for prosecutors still used in the 1980s in Dallas County contained the following advice on jury selection: "You are looking for a strong, stable individual who believes that defendants are different from them in kind". It warned against selecting jurors from minority races, people with "physical afflictions" and Jews, on the grounds that they "usually empathize with the accused".

More than 700 people have been executed in the USA since 1977. In 80% of these cases the crime involved a white victim, even though blacks and whites are the victim of murder in almost equal numbers.
In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted the "disturbing correlation" between race, of both victim and defendant, in capital sentencing in the USA. It urged the USA to ensure that "no death penalty is imposed as a result of racial bias".

Glaring gap between blacks, whites on Illinois' death row

Associated Press, December 13, 2001

Nearly 2/3 of Illinois' death row inmates are black, a higher % than in any other state except Louisiana, a new federal report shows.
The Justice Department's annual bulletin on capital punishment, released to the public Wednesday, looked at the 163 Illinois prisoners who were on death row at the end of 2000. Of those inmates, 103 were black and 60 were white - or about 63 % to 37 %. 9 inmates were of Hispanic ethnicity, although the report did not indicate their race.
Death penalty supporters and opponents disagreed about the significance of the statistics. But both sides said the numbers merit a closer look.
"What this screams out for is some kind of study of proportionality in the use of the death penalty," said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School.
Bowman said it's particularly important to look at race and sentencing in Illinois, where 13 men have been released from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Gov. George Ryan suspended executions in January 2000 after a string of men walked out of prison amid new evidence of innocence or improper prosecution.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller, a member of the commission Ryan appointed to recommend changes to the state's death penalty system, said that group is looking at the role of race in capital punishment.
Waller warned that the statistics about death-row inmates alone say nothing about the fairness of the death penalty in Illinois.
"You can't just look at the number of one particular race who are on death row," Waller said. "You have to look at the criminal justice system as a whole."
The prosecutor said he's seen studies that show the gap between black and white prisoners on death row in Illinois actually is smaller than the racial gap between those in prison for murder.
But Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, said the percentage of blacks on death row "is so out of proportion with the population that you have to ask, 'What is the explanation for this?"'
The state's population is 73.5 % white and 15.1 % black, according to the 2000 census.
Warden said he's tried for years to gather data that tracks the race of victims and defendants in all Illinois murder cases in which the death penalty could apply.
Such comprehensive information could determine, for example, whether prosecutors pursue the death penalty more often for black defendants or whether judges and juries apply the sentence differently based on race, Warden said. No central warehouse for the data exists.
"If we can't get that data to analyze, we can't really disprove the theory that black people are just more violent," Warden said.
Among the 38 states that impose the death penalty, only 8 had more black than white inmates on death row as of Dec. 31, 2000, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed.
Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said the racial disparity on Illinois' death row was one factor in the governor's decision to impose a death penalty moratorium.
"He's been concerned about that since the day he announced his decision to halt executions," Culloton said.
The governor's commission is expected to release its recommendations early next year.

Distribution of Death Row Population by Race - April 1998

White 1.637 48.2 %
Non-white 1.755 51.8 %
3.387 100.0 %

Note: Of the 3.387 the race of 21 inmates is actually unknown. I have added them to the number of white inmates.

From January 1 1973 through April 1 1998, 451 individuals have been executed, the distribution by race being:

56.3 %
46.7 %

Distribution of the 611 victims by race:

82.7 %
17.3 %

Racial combination:

  White defendant Non-white defendant
  White victim 58 % 25 %
  Non-white victim  3 % 14 %

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