Answering the hard problems: Race and the death penalty
“By reserving the penalty of death for black defendants … or for those convicted of killing white persons, we perpetuate the ugly legacy of slavery – teaching our children that some lives are inherently less precious than others.” -Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, Former President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although whites make up only 50% percent of all homicide victims. In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.”
A North Carolina study, based on data from 502 murders occurring between 1993 and 1997 found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims.
Underlying the statistical evidence is the differential treatment of African-Americans at every turn:
- All of Tennessee’s District Attorneys General are white. These are the people who decide whether or not to seek the death penalty.
- African Americans make up 43% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of its total population.
- African Americans make up 35% of those executed in the U.S. since 1976.
- In a recent study, Equal justice Initiative found that Tennessee’s appellate courts have never granted Batson relief in a criminal case. Batson v. Kentucky prohibited the racially biased use of peremptory strikes in jury selection, though the problem remains widespread.
Nearly 135 years after Congress enacted the 1875 Civil Rights Act to eliminate racially discriminatory jury selection, the practice continues, especially in serious criminal and capital cases. The staff of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has looked closely at jury selection procedures in eight southern state, including Tennessee. EJI uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in every state, including counties where prosecutors have excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service; majority-black counties where capital defendants nonetheless were tried by all-white juries; and some prosecutors employed by the state and local governments actually have been trained to exclude people on the basis of race and instructed on how to conceal their racial bias.