“Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.”
– Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun
Race is a Significant Factor in the Death Penalty
As a society we cannot change the past, but we can act to transform our future. Studies spanning more than 30 years, covering virtually every state that uses capital punishment, have found that race is a significant factor in death penalty cases.
As Justice Harry Blackmun explained in his 1994 dissent from the court’s refusal to hear the death penalty case Callins v. Collins,1 it should not surprise us that “the biases and prejudices that infect society generally influence the determination of who is sentenced to death, even within the narrower pool of death eligible defendants selected according to objective standards.”
The burdens and failures of the United States justice system fall most heavily and unfairly on communities of color.
There must be a fundamental change in the system. The lynchpin for that change is ending capital punishment.
Do We Have a Criminal Justice System Designed to Keep Us Safe?
Our broken justice system begins with an approach to policing that disproportionately targets communities of color. Such focused attention by law enforcement has resulted in 60% of our prison population being comprised of people of color who receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. Finally, it ends with the ultimate and most disturbing of all of its disparities — unequal death penalty sentencing.
What is clear is that the current system is broken and the burdens of its failures fall most heavily and unfairly on communities of color.
Death by Discrimination
Racial prejudice plays a significant role in the application of the death penalty in America, and capital punishment is used disproportionately against people of color. Although this idea is unfathomable to many Americans, the abhorrent practice is explicitly permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in the 1987 case McClesky vs. Kemp that a pattern of racial disparities in the death penalty did not violate an individual’s Constitutional right of "equal protection of the law."
While the Constitution entitles capital defendants to a fair jury of their peers, too often fair jurors are excluded because of race. In some instances, unfair prosecutors intentionally exclude jurors based on their race because of a false belief that people of color cannot fairly serve as jurors and follow the law. Although the Constitution prohibits such intentional discrimination based on race, the courts have been lax in their enforcement, and procedural barriers too often prevent claims of bias from being heard.
In other instances, seemingly neutral practices that permit prosecutors to exclude people who have concerns about the death penalty but who, in actuality can still be fair jurors, results in the over-selection of racially biased jurors. People of color, women and people of faith tend to have concerns about the death penalty and the jury selection process known as “death qualification” has a disproportionate racial impact—excluding qualified people from serving as jurors.2
Race of the Victim
Time and again, studies have shown that the death penalty is sought more often against people who kill white victims than African American or Hispanic victims.
Race and Innocence
A variety of racial issues combine to dramatically increase the risk of sentencing innocent people to death. For example, eyewitness identification, the leading cause of wrongful convictions, is even less reliable when the witness is identifying someone of a different race.3
In 2000, A Broken System, a landmark study on the capital justice system by researchers at Columbia University, found that “when whites and other influential citizens feel threatened by homicide, they put pressure on officials to punish as many criminals as severely as possible, with the result that mistakes are made, and a lot of people are initially sentenced to death who are later found to have committed a lesser crime, or no crime at all… It is disturbing that race plays a role in the outcome of death penalty cases, whatever the reasons.”4
The death penalty is an arbitrary and discriminatory punishment that has no place in a country which prides itself on equal protection for all citizens under the law. Visit TAKE ACTION to lend your support.
2 http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-penalty-black-and-white-who-lives-who-dies-who-decides#Racial Bias Permeates the System
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