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The Death Penalty and Racism

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There is a stronger link between race and the death penalty, than between smoking and heart disease according to a newly report released by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). This report is titled – “Who Dies, Who Decides” , adds to the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty in the United States is very racist. (Michael Stark 1998) This particular report includes two studies on race and capital punishment. In one example researchers cite examples of black defendants being treated in an openly racist manner in the court room. One such example reads: “In preparing for the penalty phase of an African American defendant’s trial, a white judge in Florida said in an open court: “Since the nigger’s mom and dad are here anyway, why don’t we go ahead and move to the penalty phase today instead of having to subpoena them back at cost to the state.”

Anthony Peek was sentenced to death, and the sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 1986 when it reviewed his claim of racial bias. (Stark 1998)

The second study, by professor Jeffrey Pokorak and researchers at St. Mary’s University Law School, examines the key decision makers in the death penalty across the United States and finds that they are almost exclusively white males. The study showed that 97.5% of District Attorneys in the United States are white, and almost all of them are men. Another startling section in the report reveals how Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon trained new prosecutors on how to keep blacks off juries without giving the appearance of racism. McMahon’s statements in his training video included: “Young black women are very bad, and blacks from low income areas are less likely to convict. If you go in there and think you are going to be some noble civil libertarian…you will lose and you will be out of the office” (Stark 1998).

The death penalty’s application is racist, classist- While there are actually no strong numbers to show that the death penalty kills more of one race than another anymore (last year 53 white people got the death penalty and 18 blacks did), it is true that those who kill blacks (whether the murders are white or black) are less likely to get the death penalty than those to kill whites. (Third Parties and Independent: Archieves, 2004) The United States has been accused of unfair, arbitrary and racist use of the death penalty by a U.N. special investigator in a report at a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. (Olsen, 1998). The author of the U.N. report, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a lawyer from Senegal, wrote that “race, ethnic origin and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will, and who will not, receive a sentence of death” in the United States. The report was presented to the commission last week ( The internationalist 1998). Who gets the death penalty is hardly determined by the crime they are supposed to have committed. In the hands of judges, prosecutors, juries and lawyers, race and class overwhelmingly determine who is to be executed (www.nodeathpenalty.org).

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of executions in the U.S. take place in the former slave-holding states of the Southern Confederacy — the death penalty is racist to the core. While Black people constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 40 percent of death row prisoners. Including Latinos and others, people of color make up over half the death row population nation-wide (Proletarian Revolution, 1999). The race of the victim is also crucial in determining which defendants get the death penalty. While half of all murder victims are Black, 85 percent of the murder victims in death penalty cases are white. Between 1976 and 1997, 84 Black defendants have been executed for killing a white person, but only 4 white defendants have been executed for killing a Black person. The death penalty shows clearly an overall truth about racist America: white lives are set a higher value than the lives of Black people. (The Moratorium Campaign, 2001). Indeed the U.S. Supreme Court has admitted that the death penalty is racist. In its findings on the last major court case to take up the question, McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987 the cstated: “This evidence of racism is overwhelming, it’s not refuted, but what are we supposed to do, declare the whole system unconstitutional?” African Americans are 12% of the U.S. population, but are 43% of prisoners on death row. Although Blacks constitute 50% of all murder victims, 83% of the victims in death penalty cases are white. (Olsen 1998)

Since 1976 only ten executions involved a white defendant who had killed a Black victim. In all, only 37 of the over 18,000 executions in this country’s history involved a white person being punished for killing a Black person. A comprehensive Georgia study found that killers of whites are 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence than killers of Blacks. More than 75% of those on federal death row are non-white. Of the 156 federal death penalty prosecutions approved by the Attorney General since 1988, 74% of the defendants were non-white. ( Amnesty International News release, 1996).