Death Penalty and Race Arguments Term Paper

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Statistics show that black murderers are far more likely than white murderers to get the death penalty, especially if the victim was white. Blacks make up 12% of the population but 40% of the population on death row, as noted. Georgia can serve as a case in point. Statistics show that a black man accused of killing a white person in Georgia is substantially more likely to receive the death penalty than a white person convicted of killing either a white or a black, and forty-six percent of the inmates on Georgia's death row are black, with most on death row for killing a white person. The situation is much the same in the 35 other states that have capital punishment. In Maryland, blacks make up nearly 90% of the prisoners on death row; in Illinois, 63%; and in Pennsylvania, 60%. The disparity nationwide is even greater when the race of the murder victim is taken into account: although half of all murder victims in the U.S. are black, 84% of the inmates on death row are there for killing a white person. In the last 47 years, only one white person has been executed for the killing of a black person. Out of the 16,000 executions in U.S. history, only 30 cases involved a white convicted of killing a black (Monagle, 1992, p. 13).

In 1986, this issue was raised before the U.S. Supreme Court on an appeal by a Georgia inmate and a Florida inmate in two separate cases. This issue was touted as perhaps the last full-scale assault on the death penalty. In McCleskey v. Georgia it was argued that the defendant should not have to show that he was personally discriminated against to challenge the systematic racial discrimination perceived in the justice system. Similar claims were being raised by three inmates in California based in a preliminary study that showed that whites accounted for only one-third of the homicide victims between 1978 and 1982, while three-fourths of the murderers on Death Row had killed whites. It was stated that there was only a one-in-a-million chance that the disparity was not race related (Hager & Morain, 1986, p. A16).

An important study supporting the idea that there is a racial component to capital punishment was conducted by David Baldus, who examined all capital cases in Georgia from 1973 to 1979 and who found that even after controlling for all variables that affect sentencing, people convicted of killing whites were 4.3 times more likely to receive the death sentence than those convicted of killing blacks. In cases where the defendant was black and the victim white, blacks were 22 times more likely to be sentenced to death. Racial disparities of this sort are not limited to Georgia, and a national study conducted in 1990 by the federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO) found that there was a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the all aspects of the death penalty (Monagle 13-14). In the McCleskey case, the Supreme Court allowed the sentence of death to stand, rejecting the Baldus study as irrelevant. The vote was a close 5-4, with the majority opinion written by Justice Powell and the dissent joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. The dissenters stated that it was intolerable under the Eight and Fourteenth amendments that the decision to impose the death sentence should turn on the irrelevant factor of the victim's race. Justice Powell wrote that, to prevail, McCleskey had to prove that the decision-makers in his case intended to discriminate and that the statistical pattern insufficient for this purpose. Justice Powell never makes it clear why this is so, and Justice Blackmun pointed out in dissent that the statistics showed that McCleskey's case was such that it was more likely than not that he would not have received a death sentence if his victim had been black (Finkelstein, 1987, p. 599).

The evidence that there is bias in sentencing along racial lines is not conclusive. Another study seemed to show bias as it indicated that in a 17-county sample of convicted felons, 44% of the blacks, 37% of the Latinos, but only 33% of the whites were sent to prison. The distribution of prisoners and probationers by type of crime shows that black and Latino offenders were more likely to go to prison than white offenders, especially for assault and drug
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offenses. It was found that 39% of those sent to prison for assault were black, whereas only 27% of those who received probation for this crime were black. Latinos constituted more than half of those convicted of drug crimes but less than 25% of those convicted of theft or forgery. However, once the researchers had controlled for various influences, they decided that there was no racial bias in their sample:

Taken together, our findings indicate that California courts are making racially equitable sentencing decisions. The racial disparities apparent in the in/out decision are not evidence of discrimination in sentencing?

once we control for relevant crime, prior record, and process variables... We found no evidence of racial discrimination in the length of prison term imposed for any of the crimes studied (Klein, Petersilia, & Turner, 1990, p. 816).

Ongoing Debate

Stevenson (2004) accepts the idea of oppression as the impetus for the death peantly as he writes,

Stevenson further notes that at the end of 2002, there were 3,692 people on death row in the United States and that 38 of the 50 states had death penalty statutes. The death penalty had been resurrected in 1976, and after that there were over 800 executions, 89% of which have occurred in the American South, and that these executions included women, juveniles, and the mentally ill. The majority of these executions took place in the last decade of the twentieth century as support for capital punishment gained greater political resonance and as federal courts retreated from the degree of oversight and review that existed in the early 1980s: "All of the executed were poor, a disproportionately high number were racial minorities convicted of killing white victims, many of the executed were mentally ill, and some were juveniles at the time their crimes occurred. There is no meaningful assurance that all of the executed were guilty" (Stevenson, 2004, p. 84).

A number of analysts have found a relationship between racial prejudice and the death penalty. Bohm (1991) and Aguirre and Baker (1991) find that race is one of the characteristics that has distinguished death penalty proponents from death penalty opponents. Finckenauer (1988) is more explicit and states that public support for the death penalty is linked to personality characteristics such as racial prejudice. Cohn et al. (1991) suggest that support for punitive measures, such as the death penalty, is a reflection of whites' racial prejudice toward African-Americans. Both Taylor et al. (1978, 1979) and Stinchcombe et al. (1980) show that opposition by whites to school busing for racial equality has been strongly associated with their support for capital punishment. Furthermore, Young (1991) suggests that white citizens support the death penalty in higher numbers because they see it as the best deterrent to criminal actions committed by blacks. Such studies show that public support for the death penalty is not color blind and that white support for the death penalty is a form of symbolic racism.

Outcome for Capital Punishment

For most studies in which the crimes considered are comparable, the death penalty is shown to be between three and four times more likely to be imposed in cases in which the victim is white rather than black (Baldus & Woodworth, 1998; Baldus et al.,. 1990; Radelet & Pierce, 1991). A 1990 review of 28 studies was conducted for studies that had examined the correlation between race and death sentencing in the United States after 1972, and in this, the U.S. General Accounting Agency (1990) concluded that "the synthesis supports a strong race of victim influence. The race of offender influence is not as clear cut and varies across a number of dimensions. Although there are limitations to the studies' methodologies, they are of sufficient quality to support the syntheses' findings" (p. 6). Studies into the 1990s show the same thing so that the race-of-victim effects are note (Keil & Vito, 1995), though some research, such as Baldus et al., 1998, also finds race-of-defendant effects. Amnesty International (1999) concluded that it was "undeniable" that the death penalty in the United States "is applied disproportionately on the basis of race, ethnicity, and social status" (p. 2).

The studies of Baldus and his colleagues in Georgia have been key in the ongong effort to show the effect of racial bias on the application of the death penalty. In Baldus et al.,…

Sources Used in Documents:


Aguirre, a., Jr., & Baker, D.V. (1991). Race, racism, and the death penalty in the United States. Berrien Springs, Michigan: Vande Vere Publishing.

Amnesty International (1999).. Killing with prejudice: race and the death penalty. Amnesty International, Pub. No. AMR 51/52/99. London: Amnesty International.

Baldus, D.C., Woodworth, Q., & Pulaski, C.A., Jr. (1990). Equal justice and the death penalty: A legal and empirical analysis. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Baldus, D.C., Woodworth, G., Zuckerman, D., Weiner, N.A., & Broffitt, B. (1998). Racial discrimination and the death penalty in the post-Furman era: An empirical and legal overview, with recent findings from Philadelphia. Cornell Law Review 83:1638-770

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