THE DEATH PENALTY: RACIST AND UNJUST
In light of recent acts by several governors to commute the
sentences of hundreds of Death Row inmates, the issue of the death penalty has been
appropriately thrust back into the national spotlight. It offers us
a chance to re-examine whether our practice of capital punishment is indeed
the right thing to do, fiscally or morally.
We need to consider many important questions:
-- Does the death penalty risk executing innocent
Since 1973, during the same period that 628 executions were carried out
nationwide, 87 wrongly convicted men and women on death row have been
exonerated. This is an error rate of one innocent person for every seven
persons executed -- an unconscionable ratio. A comprehensive new study by
Columbia Law School of every capital conviction between 1973-95 found that
serious mistakes were made in two-thirds of all capital cases.
-- Are there racial disparities in the application of the death penalty?
Yes. African Americans constitute 13 percent of our population but account for 35 percent of those executed, 43 percent of those on death row nationwide and 67 percent of those on death row in the federal prison system.
Additionally, those convicted of killing white victims are much more likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted of killing black victims. University of Iowa law professor David Baldus' 2008 on the issue study confirmed definite racial patterns during sentencing of inmates for serious crimes, studying 124 murder cases filed between 1990 to 2005. Even after adjusting for factors such as the defendants' criminal history and circumstances of each crime, black people who killed white people were more likely than others to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death. "It suggests to us that there's a real risk that race may have been a factor," explained Baldus.
Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has conducted a dozen studies on the topic, said Baldus is considered a pioneer of research in the field. His discrimination study of more than 2,000 murder cases in Georgia in the 1970's led to a challenge that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This study mirrors research that has shown killers of white people are more likely than those who kill black people to be sentenced to death. Baldus stated one of the most telling aspects of the research was that in the district studied no white defendants or killers of black people received death sentences. "The disparities are not normally as stark as this," said Baldus.
From the study's list 66 death-eligible cases, blacks were defendants in only 38 of the potential death penalty cases, but nine of the 10 defendants for whom prosecutors sought a death sentence were black. Similarly, whites were victims in only 35 of the potential death penalty cases, but they were the victims in seven of the 10 cases in which the death penalty was sought.
-- Are there economic disparities in the application of the death penalty?
Yes again. Of the approximately 20,000 murders that occur in the U.S. each year, only 1% result in death sentences. Which 1% depends largely on the effectiveness of the attorney, which often depends on the ability to pay.
The death penalty targets lower-income offenders. In 1999, the American Bar Association reiterated its call for a moratorium on executions, due in part to the failure to provide adequate counsel and resources to capital defendants. Almost all the people on death row were too poor to afford their own attorneys at trial. These low-income defendants were sometimes appointed lawyers who were overworked, underpaid, asleep, drunk, or lacked the necessary experience to handle death penalty cases.
-- Does capital punishment actually deter homicides?
Of the 22,000 homicides committed each year, only 300 people are sentenced
to death, which is 1.3 percent of the total. Clearly, the death penalty is
random -- a lethal lottery in which politics, quality of legal counsel and the
jurisdiction where the crime is committed are the determining factors.
A recent New York Times survey found that states without the death penalty
have lower homicide rates than states with the death penalty. The Times
reports that 10 of the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates
below the national average, whereas half of the states with the death penalty
have homicide rates above it.
-- Is life in prison without the possibility of parole a better option?
It costs more to execute a person than to keep them in prison for life. A 1993 California study argues that each death penalty case costs at least $1.25 million more than a regular murder case and a sentence of life without possibility of parole.
Certain judges have the option of sentencing convicted murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There are currently more than 1, 700 people in California, for example, who have received this alternative sentence, which includes no appeals process. According to the California governor's office, no one sentenced to life without parole has been released since the state provided this option in 1977.
Beyond these practical considerations, from a moral perspective, one simply cannot ignore that the vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North and South America and more than 95 nations worldwide have abandoned capital punishment. The United States remains in the dubious company of Iraq, Iran and China as among the major advocates and practitioners of the death penalty.
Simply put, the death penalty is flawed. In light of the recent action by the American Law Institute, coupled with studies proving racial and economic bias, can we really continue to have confidence that our nation's remaining death penalty administering states can be be trusted to do so fairly and equitably?
If a law is not applied fairly across racial, social and economic lines, then the law fails to protect the citizens it is bound to serve.
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