Discrimination and the Death Penalty



Discrimination and the Death Penalty
By Katie Matthews


"Twenty years have past since this court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, and, despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake."
--Justice Harry Blackmun, Feb. 22, 1994.


Capital punishment is one of the most debatable subjects, in American society. Proponents of the death penalty believe it is justice--retribution for the crimes committed.
The reason underlining Americans\' overwhelming support of executions is usually revenge. We believe that most serious crimes deserve the most serious punishment, as we recall the statement from the Old Testament, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," principle. When we hear about a murderer, rarely do we want to understand what drove him to murder; more often, we wish to kill him. It is difficult to understand that the vengefulness we feel toward a murderer, which drives us to champion execution, is identical to the wish for revenge the murderer feels for what he believes to be the horrendous injustices in his life. Our desire to tame the heart of the murderer is quite limited. We feel as murderous toward them as they do toward those they have killed. We wish either to kill or torture them. This makes a murderer, if he is imprisoned, even more murderous. Just as the murderer\'s murder accomplishes nothing, so too the death penalty has not in any way decreased murder.

The judicial system was created in hopes of providing justice for all people. Although movements such as Civil Rights and Black Power have taken place to ensure justice for all, discrimination still exists in our judicial system. Capital Punishment is applied in an unfair, arbitrary and discriminatory manner. As long as it remains a part of our penal system, it will be used disproportionately against the poor, racial minorities, and those who had received inadequate legal representation. The following essay will cover how racism is applied in the death penalty; the means of discretion that the judges and jury use; and how the poor are discriminated against due to their lack of proper council.

"Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die."
--Justice Harry Blackmun

Throughout American history, the death penalty has fallen disproportionately on racial minorities. From 1930, the first year for which statistics are readily available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to 1967, 3,859 persons were executed under civil jurisdiction in the United States. During this period of nearly half a century, over half (54%) of those executed were black, 45 percent were white, and the remaining one percent were members of other racial groups (see fig. 1).

Between 1930 and 1976 nearly 90% of those executed for the crime of rape in this country were African-Americans . Between 1930 and 1996, 4220 prisoners were executed in the U.S.; more than half (53%) were black . Currently, about 50% of those on the nations death rows are from minority populations representing 20% of the country\'s population. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned existing death penalty statutes in part because of the danger that those being selected to die were chosen out of racial prejudice. Legislatures adopted the death sentencing procedures that were supposed to eliminate the influence of race from the death sentencing process. That was one of the grounds on which the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in Furman. However, evidence of racial discrimination in the application of capital punishment continues. Nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been black, although blacks constitute only 12% of the population. And in almost every death penalty case, the race of the victims is white (see fig. 2). Last year alone, 89% of the death sentences carried out involved white victims, even though 50% of the homicides in America have been black victims . Of all the executions that have occurred since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only one has involved a white defendant for the murder of a black person.

Racial minorities are