An article of faith among leftists is that in the United States, the death penalty is often applied in a racially discriminatory manner. Jesse Jackson and his son, Jesse Jackson Jr., advanced this belief in their 1996 book, Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice, and the Death Penalty. The NAACP, for its part, contends that capital punishment should be abolished “because we know that race and class disproportionately determine who lives and who dies.” According to Amnesty International, “The United States legal system is riddled with deeply ingrained racial and ethnic divisions. The prejudices of some police, jurors, judges and prosecutors reflect contemporary racial and ethnic divisions in U.S. society, and nowhere is racial discrimination more evident, or more deadly, than in the application of the death penalty.” The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty complains that capital punishment is overwhelmingly reserved for racial minorities, stating: “Race plays a role in determining who lives and who dies.” Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan goes even further, asserting that “the unfair use of the death penalty to punish the black male is in fact a systematic genocidal tool being institutionalized to significantly decrease the black population.”
Of the 2,721 prisoners on death row in the United States as of October 1, 2018, about 42% were white, 42% were black, and 13% were Hispanic. Blacks, who comprise just over 13% percent of the U.S. population, are significantly overrepresented among those awaiting execution. But the disparity between the black presence on death row and the black presence in the overall population is impertinent. The truly relevant number is that since 1980, black killers have committed fully 49% of all homicides nationwide. Further, of the 1,499 defendants executed between 1976 and May 31, 2019, some 55.8% were white and 34.2% were black. Given these facts, there is no basis for claims that American courts are more inclined to impose capital punishment on black killers than on white killers.
A logical parallel can be drawn to the fact that men are likewise “overrepresented” on death row when compared to women. Indeed, about 98% of all prisoners awaiting execution are males. This number simply reflects the reality of the streets: men commit an overwhelming percentage of homicides; women commit very few.
In his 1987 book The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, Professor William Wilbanks cites an important study which found that between 1977 and 1984, white killers were actually more likely to get the death penalty than were black killers. Even more to the point, Wilbanks notes that “whites who had killed whites were more likely than blacks who had killed whites to be on death row, [and] whites who killed blacks were more likely to reach death row than blacks who killed blacks.”
In their 1997 book America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom cite what they call “the most careful statistical study” of the death penalty that was ever conducted. Commissioned by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, this study analyzed some 2,500 murder cases that occurred in Georgia between 1973 and 1979. The researchers found that white defendants guilty of murder were 80% more likely (7.4% vs. 4.1%) to receive a death sentence than comparable black defendants. From these figures, no sustainable case can be made for the notion that black killers in general are disproportionately sent to death row.
But capital punishment’s opponents, seeking to prove that the American justice system values white lives more than black lives, point to a separate finding of the Georgia study: 11% of the killers of white people, as opposed to just 1.3% of the killers of black people, were sentenced to death. While these numbers may, at first blush, appear to incriminate the justice system, we must bear in mind the fact that convicted killers cannot be executed in accordance with the whims and prejudices of judges and juries; that the law in fact requires that certain aggravating circumstances be proven before any murderer can be put to death. Among these circumstances are armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, mutilation, execution-style shooting, torture, and extreme physical brutality.
The Georgia study found that black-on-white murders occurred in conjunction with one or more of these variables far more frequently than did black-on-black murders. Fully 67% of black-on-white homicides, for instance, also involved armed robberies, as compared to just 7% of black-on-black homicides. Moreover, black-on-black killings were most commonly drug- or family-related, categories that typically do not qualify a perpetrator for the death penalty. Indeed, 73% of those black-on-black homicides were “hot-blooded” incidents that occurred between relatives or acquaintances fighting at home or in their own neighborhoods. Black-on-white killings, by contrast, tended to be the more “cold-blooded,” calculated, and brutal types of crimes that society punishes most severely. The added question of whether aggravating circumstances were equally predictive of a death sentence for whites who killed blacks could not be answered by the Georgia study, which simply did not review enough cases of that type to justify any statistical conclusions. White-on-black murders have been statistically rare in the United States for many years, and only 22 of the 2,500 homicides examined in the study involved whites killing blacks.
Virtually all reliable research on capital punishment confirms the Georgia study’s finding that the death penalty does not discriminate against blacks. In their exhaustive 1994 review of the literature on this subject, professors Stanley Rothman and Stephen Powers controlled for all relevant variables and found no evidence of racial discrimination in post-1972 capital sentencing. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom write: “[B]lack offenders over the past generation have not been sentenced to death at a higher rate than white offenders. No careful scholarly study in recent years has demonstrated that the race of the defendant has played a significant role in the outcome of murder trials.” Nor is there any evidence that black murderers serve longer prison terms than comparable white murderers.
- William Wilbanks, The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, (Monterey: Brooks/Cole, 1987), p. 18.
- Samuel Francis, “‘Racial Justice Act’: More Racial Than Just,” Conservative Chronicle (August 3, 1994), p. 3.
Facts About the Death Penalty
By The Death Penalty Information Center
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By David Muhlhausen (Heritage Foundation)
June 27, 2007
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By John R. Lott Jr.
May 13, 2014
Studies Confirm: Death Penalties Deter Many Murders at Far Less Cost
By David Muhlhausen (Heritage Foundation)
October 21, 2014
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By Heather MacDonald