Racial discrimination in death penalty cases

When a discussion about the death penalty arises, there is always an elephant in the room. The issue of the ultimate legalized sanction is inextricably linked with systemic racism in this country. It is not possible to discuss one with ultimately getting around to talking about the other.

Facts and figures

Black people account for 13% of the American population. Yes since 1976 43% of the people executed have been black. As of the writing of this article, of the people currently on death row, 55% of them are people of color.

In certain states and within the US military court system the number of minorities on death row varies from 70-86%. Although there are other states,

The race of the victim

One of the reasons why we cannot avoid a discussion about racism if we talk about the death penalty is the number of times the penalty is imposed and its correlation with the race of the victim. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out state after state where the balance of numbers is simply suspicious.

A study in N. Carolina found that the imposition of the death sentence was 3.5 times more likely if the victim was white. The General Accounting Office found a similar effect in many of the states where the penalty is imposed. A study in Georgia found the ratio completely switches, only 15% of white defendants received the death penalty when found guilty of the murder of a person of color.

This is a much bigger issue than the imposition of the death penalty and it speaks to how we select juries. Apologists for the death penalty would argue that there is a check in the requirement for a unanimous just verdict. In Alabama (as an example) 8 out of 10 eligible black jurors are struck from the jury list; the defendant is already in an uphill battle. This is underscored by the unfettered discretion of the prosecuting authorities. 98% of the prosecutors in the 38 states which allow the death penalty are – you guessed it – white.

And then there is poverty

This is one of the most defining points about the death penalty in the US today, and it comes down to the fact defendants are usually unable to afford a defense. In Alabama where the occurrence of imbalance is frequent, the state has no state-funded program to provide legal support for death row prisoners. 73% of the people on death row currently have been found guilty of the murder of a white victim.

Poor representation, or outclassed representation, is a huge factor which affect the poorest being accused, processed, tried and then found guilty. The system is basically stacked against the person of color who is poor and accused of killing a white person.

In some ways, if we were to change the conversation to how do we implement a death penalty system where justice is blind it might be acceptable. Until then there should be a moratorium.