Race and the Death Penalty Research Paper

Excerpt from Research Paper :

It is difficult to argue that the death penalty is being applied evenly and fairly as required by the Supreme Court's Furman v. Georgia decision. In fact, it could be argued, with statistics like these, that the application of the death penalty is being influenced by racial factors.

If the race of the victim is a factor in deciding whether or not the defendant receives the death penalty, then the race of the defendant is even more of a factor. For decades, critics of the justice system have asserted race to be a factor in crime and prosecutions in the United States, and it was ultimately the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty on African-Americans in Georgia that led to the Supreme Court's banning it in 1971. Black defendants are still overwhelming prosecuted more often than white defendants, but it is not only death penalty cases where this is the case. For instance, "in 2005, African-Americans represented 14% of drug users, yet constituted 33.9% of persons arrested for a drug offense, and 53% of persons sentenced to prison for a drug offense." ("Reducing Racial Disparity") However, when it comes to capital cases, it has been claimed that the death penalty "is used disproportionately against people of color, [with] 72% of the cases approved for death penalty prosecution involved minority defendants." ("ACLU Race and the Death Penalty") Statistics seem to back up this assertion as there have been more than 1200 executions in the United States since 1976, with 441, or 35% of those executed being African America. ("Race and the Death Penalty") and currently, African-Americans make up nearly 42% of death row inmates in the United States, but only compose 12.6% of the overall population. (U.S. Census Bureau) While there have been many studies to determine the exact causes of this apparent racial disparity in the application of the death penalty in America, as well as many theories as to how to amend these disparities, no one can deny the fact that race plays an important factor in the prosecution of criminals and application of the death penalty. Black defendants are statistically more likely to be prosecuted for a crime than a white person, and more likely to be given the death penalty if found guilty of murder. These facts clearly demonstrate that the race of the defendant is a factor in the application of death sentences, and that the death penalty is once again being applied arbitrarily to African-American defendants.

In the past, it was the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution which had been the legal basis of the death penalty, however, in the 1960's, the constitutionality of capital punishment came into question. Although it had been in another case where the Supreme Court decided that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited cruel and unusual punishments, "contained an 'evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society,'" this concept was applied to the death penalty in the Furman case. ("History of the Death Penalty and Recent Developments") it is important to mention that in the Furman decision, the Supreme Court decided that "cruel and unusual" punishments, besides being arbitrary, could also be defined as being "too severe for the crime…[or] if it offended society's sense of justice, or if it was not more effective than a less severe penalty." ("History of the Death Penalty and Recent Developments") as the United States settles into the 21st century, there needs to be a re-evaluation of the death penalty in light of the recent studies on racial bias in its application. As the Supreme Court stated, society contains an ever evolving standard of decency and it is very difficult to justify the continuation of the death penalty when it is clear that, as a punishment, death is applied in an arbitrary manner. And since the United States will no longer tolerate racial injustice in society in general, it should not be tolerated in the justice system.

And finally, as stated in the Saint Leo University list of core values, Integrity means that people must be "honest, just, and consistent in word and deed," but how can there be integrity in the justice system if the death penalty is being unfairly handed out to minority defendants to a greater degree than others? ("St. Leo Core Values") it has been demonstrated that since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, it has not been dispensed in an honest, just, or consistent manner. Once again African-Americans are being unfairly given the death penalty more often than white defendants, and at a rate that is almost four times higher than their proportion of the population. And it is not only the race of the defendant that is unfairly being used as a factor in the dispensing of death as a punishment, but the race of the victim as well. Statistics clearly demonstrate that when a murder victim is white, there is a much higher percentage that an African-American defendant will receive the death penalty than when the victim is not white. These statistics do not reflect the commitment to integrity that the justice system of the United States is supposed to entail, nor do they reflect the Supreme Court's prior decision in the Furman v. Georgia case. If the Supreme Court found that arbitrary application of the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional, then the current application of the death penalty must be viewed as being similarly arbitrary and therefore unconstitutional. Not taking into account the moral factors involved in taking a life as punishment for murder, if the United States is going to have capital punishment, then it is vital that it be dispensed in a fair, consistent, and just manner; and currently this is not the case with the death penalty.


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