Is it ever justified to kill someone? Even if that person is responsible for a horrific crime? For many people in the United States, the death penalty is considered a brutal and barbaric method of punishment that should be abolished. Inhumane executions have no place in the civilized society we live in, and if we, as a collective community, truly respect how precious human life is, we should not deliberately kill other human beings. In other words, no one deserves to die. Not only are the social, political, and economic costs of such a punishment too high and not in the national interest, but a major problem with the death sentence is the inevitability of its being discriminatorily applied towards minorities.
Justice Harry Blackmun highlighted the dark reality of capital punishment in the United States: “Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.” According to the 2000 United States Census, the racial composition of the country was 71.5% white, 12.3% black, and 12.5% Latinx. However, as seen in the chart below from the Death Penalty Information Center, in the year 2000 the racial composition of death row inmates was 46.2% white, 42.7% black, and 9% Latinx.
According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, “people of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently awaiting execution.” These overwhelming statistics blatantly point to extreme racial discrimination and injustices within the United States death penalty system.
The race of the defendant is a huge determinant of whether capital punishment will be employed or not. Numerous studies have shown that a black person who kills a white person has the highest chance of receiving the death sentence. The United States Department of Justice conducted a statistical survey regarding federal death penalty prosecutions from 1988 to 2000. The racial/ethnic distribution of the defendants can be seen in the image below.
The data exposes how, even at a federal level, the death penalty disproportionately targets minorities. The graphic below from the year 2000 underlines these appalling statistics.
The race of the victim is another factor that influences the severity of a criminal sentence. Studies have shown that if the murder victim is white, it is much more likely that the death sentence will be applied than if the victim is not white. According to data from Capital Punishment in Context, although victims are white in 50% of national murder cases, victims are white in 80% of capital punishment cases. In the United States General Accounting Office 1990 study on death penalty sentencing, it was revealed that “In 82% of the studies, the race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” Below is a graph from the Death Penalty Information Center showing the probability of receiving the death penalty based on the race of the defendant and victim.
The race of the jurors also impacts who receives the death penalty. Due to racial prejudices among the general population, capital cases with predominantly white juries convict an unbalanced number of blacks and non-whites. The American Civil Liberties Union found that “Between 1983 and 1993 prosecutors in Philadelphia voted to remove 52% of potential black jurors while trying to remove only 23% of other potential jurors.” In a study conducted by the Dallas Morning News and Southern Methodist University Law Review, potential black jurors in Dallas County were removed by prosecutors at twice the rate of other potential jurors.
The race of the prosecutor is yet another influence as to who receives the death penalty. It is entirely the prosecutor’s decision whether or not to pursue capital punishment in criminal cases. Based on a Cornell Law Review study on the race of death penalty prosecutors, it was found that 97.5% were white, 1.2% were black and 1.2% were Latinx. The chart with these statistics is directly below.
Despite all the evidence that highlights the injustices directed towards minorities, the death penalty system remains in place, continuing to disproportionately kill people of color. American lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson states, “The reality is that capital punishment in America is a lottery. It is a punishment that is shaped by the constraints of poverty, race, geography and local politics.” In this video, Stevenson explains the direct link from previous Southern lynchings to its “stepchild,” the death penalty.
There is overwhelming data regarding the impermissible racial bias present in who receives the death penalty in the United States at both a state and federal level. However, if we see these statistics right before our eyes, why is nothing changing?
This article was initially a project from the class Dangers of a Single Story completed after reading the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.