For those who believe in individual liberty, limited government, and protecting the sanctity of human life --- as most conservatives and libertarians claim to --- it must be of paramount concern if the government treats people of color differently under our laws. And despite tremendous gains towards equality in our history, that is still an unfortunate reality.
A new study from the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), "Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty," examines this very subject and traces the origins of the country’s death penalty laws and practices back through slavery.
Reading the historical portion of the report is stomach-turning, as it details the different standards used to weight crimes against white people versus crimes against Blacks.
Pre-Civil War, a Black man would be sentenced to die for the rape of a white woman, whereas the rape of a Black woman came with a mere fine, as one example.
But what’s most repulsive is the recognition that we have carried these same standards into our modern era. Though our laws no longer allow for blatant discrimination, they’ve not been sufficient to prevent the practice of treating people who are victims and those who have caused harm differently under the law based on the color of their skin.
To put it as bluntly as possible, our current system values white victims far more than it does victims of other races. Seventy-five percent of all cases that resulted in an execution have involved white victims, even though only half of all murder victims are white.
It’s important to keep in mind a few other factors when considering this number.
One, the vast majority of crimes go unsolved. The average clearance rate for homicides is only 60% nationally. And remember that’s an average; in many places the rates are 30% or less. So at least 40% of homicide victims get no closure, no healing, no accountability.
And the race of those victims who are less likely to have their cases solved?
You guessed it, people of color.
Second, the death penalty costs up to 10 times more than a sentence of life in prison without parole. So, when a prosecutor decides to pursue the death penalty, they are choosing to devote millions of extra dollars, just to attempt to secure an execution.
Taking all of these facts together, the picture is clear.
Our government prioritizes solving the crimes committed against white victims and then chooses to spend a staggering amount in excess to carry out more punitive punishments for those who harm them.
Not only do we see racial bias determine which victims get justice, we also see that race heavily factors into which defendants receive harsher consequences.
The leading combination for cases on death row is a Black defendant with a white victim. To date, 295 Black people have been executed for killing a white person, while only 21 white people have been executed for killing a Black person.
The study’s findings don’t stop there. They show that racial bias permeates every point of the process – from jury selection, to the conduct of law enforcement, to wrongful convictions.
Here are a few highlights:
A North Carolina study found that qualified Black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors. As of 2010, 20% of the state’s death row was sentenced to die by all white juries. For the record, jury stacking is illegal and has been for nearly 150 years, but courts have done little to protect against this injustice.
We’ve also utterly failed to safeguard against wrongful convictions. For those not up to speed, the nation has currently exonerated one person from death row for every nine executions. What many may be unaware of is the fact that Black people are 50% more likely to be wrongfully convicted compared to other races. The DPIC study dug a bit deeper into this data and found that exonerations of Black people for murder convictions are 22% more likely to be linked to police misconduct.
In Missouri, Marcellus Williams was sentenced to die for the death of a white woman. He was represented by an attorney who admitted he was unprepared for trial, had a jury of 11 white jurors and one Black juror, and was convicted despite a lack of evidence or eyewitnesses.
Instead, the prosecutor used the testimony of two informants. Fifteen years after his sentence, DNA evidence proved his forensics were not on the murder weapon. And yet Williams remains on death row.
Similarly, Pervis Payne faces execution in Tennessee later this year. Payne is intellectually disabled and has maintained his innocence for 30 years. He faces execution for the murder of a white woman. In Payne’s case, the prosecution has hidden evidence and blocked the testing of DNA evidence that could exonerate him.
There’s frankly too many examples of Black men being targeted by law enforcement with shoddy evidence to fully explore here. The DPIC study points to the cases of Julius Jones, Anthony Hinton, Clarence Bradley, and Walter McMillian to name just a few others.
It's beyond question that our government carries out the death penalty in a racist manner. This system has flowed directly out of our dark history of slavery, lynching, and racial suppression.
Like these other horrific systems, it is something we should wash our hands of.
History will not look kindly at those who continue to prop it up.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.
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