Race and Capital Punishment

Published 16 Feb 2017



The process of determining recipients of capital punishment in the United State involves sequential stages of decision making by the prosecutor and jury. Despite structural reforms to minimize its potential influence in capital sentencing, race still plays a crucial role in capital punishment.

With this background knowledge, this paper will attempt to evaluate the role played by race and economics in crimes and sentencing in the United States capital punishment cases. This will be done through a review of the history of death row and executions. Some cases touching on statistics, financial influences, due process will be reviewed to clearly show the issue of race is prevalent in capital punishment.


Death row.

Race is an important factor in determining who is sentenced to die. In 1990 a report from the General accounting office concluded that in 82 percent of the studies reviewed, race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty. Those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. (Jason et al 2007)

The human cost of this racial injustice cannot be measured in figures. The decisions about who lives and who dies are being made along racial lives by a nearly all white group of prosecutors. The death penalty presents a stark symbol of the effects of racial discrimination. In individual cases, this racism is reflected in ethnic slurs hurled at black defendants by the prosecution and even by the defense. It results in black jurors being systematically barred from service and in devoting of more resources to white victims of homicide at the expense of black victims. And it results in a death penalty in which blacks are frequently put to death for murdering whites, but whites are almost never executed for murdering blacks. Such a system of injustice is not just unfair and unconstitutional; it tears at the very principles to which United States struggles to follow. (Jason et al, 2007)


Since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976, there have been 1,099 executions in the United States. This was as of October 2007. There were 53 executions in 2006. The largest single execution in United States history was the hanging of 38 Dakota people convicted of murder and rape in the Dakota war of 1862. The second largest mass execution in the United States history was also the execution of 13 African American soldiers for their involvement in the Houston Riot. Notably, both incidents involved ethnic minority defendants and military tribunal judgments in time of war. Nationwide, over half, 55 percent of those executed between 1930 and 1991 were blacks. (Davies et al, 2006)

Executions of black Americans occurred at such a high rate compared to other racial categories that in 1972 the Supreme Court temporarily prohibited death penalty sentences when a black defendant successfully argued that the death penalty was applied to black offenders at a much greater rate than others for the same kind of offenses. More differences were discovered in the rate of offenders having their death sentences reduced to life sentences. Some 20 percent of white death row offenders had their sentences reduced to life sentences compared to only 11 percent of blacks between 1914 and 1958 in Pennsylvania. At the end of twentieth century some 40 percent of death row inmates were black. (Davies et al, 2006)


Crime, sentencing and race

The United States boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world at the present, with more than two million individuals currently behind bars. Characterized by a rejection of the ideals of rehabilitation and an emphasis on “tough on crime” policies, the practice of punishment over the past thirty years has taken a radically different turn from earlier periods in history. Blacks in US have long been regarded with suspicion and fear, but unlike progressive trends in other racial attitudes, associations between race and crime have changed little in recent years. Survey respondents consistently rate blacks as more prone to violence than any other American racial or ethnic groups with the stereotype of aggressiveness and violence most frequently endorsed in ratings of African Americans. The stereotype of blacks as criminals is deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of white Americans, irrespective of the perceiver’s level of prejudice or personal beliefs. Approximately 70% of prisoners in the United States are non-whites. (Hurwitz et al 2007)

Two structural changes in the United States economy have caused elevations in crime, drug abuse, unwanted motherhood, illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty. The first change is a transition from goods producing industries to service-producing industries. Manufacturing industries have been a major source of employment for blacks in the twentieth century. These industries are particularly sensitive to a stagnant economy and blacks lost a considerable number of jobs during the recession decade of the 1970’s. The second structural change is the relocation of manufacturing industries from inner cities to suburbs. In earlier years, the ghetto neighborhood was composed of employed adults. Black working and middle classes brought stability to these neighborhoods. When this industrial restructuring occurred, some low skill jobs vanished and were replaced by high skill jobs, while others were moved to the suburbs. This resulted in the black middle and working classes moving out of the inner circle in order to follow the jobs. Those who remained in these inner cities were left to suffer the lack of jobs. Joblessness and the disappearance of work in inner cities are the main causes of poverty and other negative social situations (crime, low education, single-parent households) for residents in these areas. Blacks in these areas were socially isolated, and this resulted in an increase in crime. (Hurwitz et al, 2007)

In the southern jurisdictions, the odds of imprisonment markedly increase among defendants who are racial minorities or have been previously convicted of a felony. It is true that capital sentencing is pervaded by racial influences, and our highest court, the court of last resort for the protection of individual rights, refuses to recognize this or act upon it. The implications are more than serious.


There are different statistics for capital punishment. On executions; in 2007, 42 inmates were executed, 11 fewer than in 206. Of persons executed in 2007, 28 were white and 14 were black. All the 42 inmates executed in 2007 were men. At the end of 2006, 37 states and the federal prison system held 3,228 prisoners under sentence of death, 17 fewer than at the year end 2005. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, white inmates have made up more than half of the number under sentence of death. Of these 1,802 were white, 1,352 were black, 28 were American Indian, 35 were Asian and 11 were of unknown race.

By 10April 2003, 290 blacks had been put to death and at least a further 10 were scheduled to be killed by the end of July. African Americans are disproportionately represented among people condemned to death in the USA.

While they make up 12 per cent of the national population, they account for more than 40 per cent of the country’s current death row inmates. One in three of these have been executed since 1977.

Financial influence

Ndiaye, an investigative reporter to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva recommended the suspension of death penalty after finding that race and economic status influenced the severity of sentencing and said the defendants who could afford a better defense were usually spared. Elected judges often feel compelled to order unwarranted executions in order to appeal to constituents.

Most poor people are sentenced because they are too poor too afford a lawyer to represent them. The link between poverty and race should not be overlooked as the issues of racial and ethnic bias cannot be divorced from the issue of poverty. The poor, among whom minority communities are overrepresented, are not provided with adequate legal representation, including ample funds for experts and investigation. There cannot be a lasting solution to the issue of racial and ethnic bias in the capital justice system where many minority defendants have been denied adequate legal representation over the years and instead assigned incompetent lawyers who are under resourced or operating under a conflict of interest. (Jason et al, 2007)

Due process

Blatant racism is seen and heard too often in courtrooms around the US. In death penalty cases, the use of derogatory slurs aggravate prejudice and allow the jury to judge harshly those they wish to scapegoat for the problem of crime. A few examples illustrate the intensity of this racism.

A prosecutor in Alabama gave as his reason for striking several potential jurors the fact that they were affiliated with Alabama State University-a predominantly black institution. This pretext was considered race neutral by the reviewing court.

“One of you two is gonna hung for this. Since you’re the nigger you’ve been selected. These words were spoken by a Texas police officer to Clarence Bradley who was charged with the murder of a white school girl. Bradley was later exonerated in 1990 after ten years on death row. (Steelewater et al, 2003)


Public concern has been fuelled by evidence that errors in capital cases occur not only in relation to quilt and innocence, but also in relation to sentencing. In other words people are being sentenced to die for crimes that do not deserve death penalty; a punishment supposedly reserved in the USA for the worst of worst crimes and offenders.
“We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment”. These were the words of Senator Russ Feingold in 2003. This statement summarizes the state of US legal system
I do hope that this paper brings to light these disparities and creates a better understanding. Above all I hope it does challenge our judicial system.


  • Capital Punishment Statistics. ‘Bureau of Justice Statistics.1. US Department of Justice. 30 Oct. 2007.
  • Carmichael, Jason T., David Jacobs, and Zhenchao Qian. ‘Who Survives on Death Row? An individual and Contextual Analysis. American Journal of Political Science. 72.4 (August 2007)
  • Davies, Paul G., Jennifer L. Eberhardt, and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns. ‘Looking Death worthy.’ Psychological Science. New York 17.5(May 2006)
  • Hurwitz, Jon., and Mark Peffy. Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America. American Journal of Political Science. 51.4(October 2007)
  • Stelewater, Eliza. Hangman’s Knot: Lynching, Legal Execution, and Americas Struggle with the Death Penalty. Boulder, CO: West view Press, July 2003.
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