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Racial Disparity and the Death Penalty

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Racial Disparity and the Death Penalty

Capital punishment, the death penalty, a death sentence, or a ruling of execution, no matter what one calls it, a verdict of death is the ultimate consequence for committing a capital crime. The United States is the only Western democracy that still uses capital punishment, and for decades there has been significant interest and concern that within the criminal justice system there is racial disparity in the application of capital punishment. Throughout the years there have been numerous studies done on the racial inconsistencies of the death penalty. This research has shown significant racial disparities related to the death penalty.

Arbitrary use of the Death Penalty

The criminal justice system is at risk for discrimination and error. Practicality, discretionary decisions and prevailing public opinion may influence the proceedings at every stage from the initial arrest to the last-minute decision of clemency. The reality of the death penalty is that what determines who shall be executed and who shall be spared is often not only the nature of the crimes but also the ethnic and social background, the financial resources or the political opinions of the defendant. The death penalty is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and the powerless (Amnesty International, 2007). For instance, a study conducted by two University of North Carolina professors and published by the Common Sense Foundation found that black defendants were twice as likely to receive the death penalty as whites after committing identical crimes (Evans, 2009).

Another interesting evaluation according to the Death Penalty Information Center (2008), is "...there remains a lack of uniformity in the capital punishment system. Some of the most heinous murders do not result in death sentences, while less heinous crimes are punished by death" (para.1). One of the reasons for this seems to be the result of geographical arbitrariness. There are 31 states that perform executions today, and most of them are in the Southern region; some of these states are, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Missouri. These are the states that have had the most executions starting in January 1977 through January 2007. In this time frame Texas had 393 executions, Florida had 64, and Virginia executed 98 prisoners in those 30 years (Woods, 2007). These statistics illustrate that it would depend on where a capital crime was committed to determine if the defendant is sentenced to death. If a capital crime is committed in Minnesota, for example, the defendant is less likely to be sentenced to death, than a defendant that commits the same crime in Texas.

Race Disparity

Death row is disproportionately populated by blacks. Although African Americans make up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute about 42 percent of the prisoners on death row (Braswell, McCarthy, & McCarthy, 2008). Almost 80 percent of offenders executed since 1976 were for the murder of a white victim, although, an equal number of both blacks and whites are victims of murder (DPIC, 2008). Racial bias has always been a significant concern in death penalty discussions. The first ethical concern is whether discrimination in fact occurs. There have been many thorough statistical studies indicating that race plays a significant role in determining who lives and who dies. For example, according to findings of a Governor commissioned death penalty study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the state's death penalty system is surrounded with racial bias, and shows that geography also plays a significant role in who faces a capital conviction. The study released in 2003 by the University of Maryland concluded that race, along with geography, is an important factor in death penalty decisions in that state. Prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty when the race of the victim is white and less likely when the race of the victim is African-American (Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC], 2008). The study, one of the nation's most comprehensive official reviews on race and the death penalty, concluded that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if they have killed a white person (DPIC, 2008). Although, death rows are populated with African Americans in numbers far in excess of their proportions in the broader population, these statistics do not, by themselves, prove the system to be racially discriminatory. They do lead to the perception of discrimination on the part of many individuals, particularly those within the African American community (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). On the other side of this subject, McAdams (1998) explains, if blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death, but are also more likely to obtain post-sentencing counsel from among the positions of "political activist anti-capital punishment lawyers, a racial disparity in sentencing might be counterbalanced by an opposite disparity in the appeals process" (p. 157).

Attorney Misconduct

Another issue facing race and capital cases involve misconduct, either by the prosecutor or a defense attorney in a capital court case. A major source of the inequality in the death penalty decision making process is the quality of defense representation that many offenders get. There is overwhelming agreement among death penalty scholars that the lack of resources leads to a much higher probability of conviction and sentence to death (Robinson & Williams, 2009). Many offenders are poor and cannot afford the best defense attorney available. Moreover, many states are willing or able to spend only a limited amount of money on indigent offender defense representation (Braswell et al., 2008). Some states, such as New York, do provide competitive pay to attorneys assigned to death penalty cases so that they can put forth an adequate defense. However, many other states provide very modest compensation so that it is often difficult if not impossible to attract qualified attorneys to work death penalty cases. Recent studies have shown that in the nine southern states that use the death penalty most often, more than 10 percent of the attorneys who have represented indigent capital defendants have been disbarred, suspended, or disciplined at rates significantly higher than average, even in those states. "In fact, most of the attorneys in the death belt had not handled a capital case before, and the death belt states did not have training programs for these attorneys" (Braswell et al., 2008, p. 229). Capital punishment experts surveyed by Robinson (2007) consistently noted that a major source of bias in capital punishment relates to not being able to afford quality legal representation

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