Thesis: What Role Does Race Play in the Death Penalty

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Race and the Death Penalty

Racism and the Death Penalty

An Exploration of the Debate With Possible Solutions

On October 24th, he won a stay of execution. It was 19 years coming. And it was temporary. Of course, Troy Anthony Davis is not the only innocent black man to ever sit on death row. From the Campaign to End the Death Penalty organization in the United States to Amnesty International to the European Union, Davis, and his sister, have made his case overwhelmingly public as to raise awareness for the other black men and women who sit, some innocent and others just disproportionately, on death row in Georgia and other states in the union. As for Troy, he was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer, a crime for which he has always pled innocent. No murder weapon was ever found; nothing but witness testimony linked him to the case; and since their testimony, all but two of those witnesses have recanted their words and cited police coercion. But Troy's case is held up by restrictions on federal appeals, and at the end of 25 days, he may find himself awaiting execution once again, despite the backing of non-profit organizations and leaders and media across the world (Amnesty International 2008).

What does Troy's case reveal about the death penalty? Obviously, it denotes that something must be done; something is wrong with the system as it is. If a man whose innocence is even questioned due to police coercion and recanting witnesses can be put to death because of flaws in the legal system, the death penalty's justness must surely be revisited. But another dynamic exists in Davis's case -- his race. Many herald the death penalty to be racist, and as a black man who sits on death row in Georgia, that Davis's race aided his predicament is not impossible. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (2003), over half of those on death row in February of 2003 were people of color. Thus, is the death penalty racist? Many say yes, while some still answer no. An examination of both sides of the argument, and a discussion of how any wrongs can be righted will help others to think critically about this issue.

The American Civil Liberties Union (2003) union argues strongly that race is a factor in determining who will receive the death penalty. In fact, the organization argues, "the color of a defendant and victim's skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America." The organization backs up their claims by stating that 43% of those executed between 1976 and 2003 were people of color, calling the development, "blatant prejudice" (American Civil Liberties Union 2003). Although more African-Americans are on death row, or have been executed, than whites, this number may be explainable if they committed most of the crimes. According to proponents of the racist theory, however, this is simply untrue. The American Civil Liberties Union (2003) states that when the defendant is black and the victim is white, the black defendant receives the death penalty far more often then when the opposite is true. Scholarly studies have echoed these findings, revealing that defendants who have killed a white victim are more likely to be sentenced to death. These studies examined states like Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. A nationwide study revealed similar findings, and in Georgia, where Troy Davis awaits a final decision, "prosecutors...sought the death penalty for 70% of black defendants with white victims but only for 15% of white defendants with black victims" (American Civil Liberties Union 2003). Judges, prosecutors, the jury, and the law may all be at fault in producing these statistics. Martin and Thompson (2007) argue, "prosecutors and state officials have denied persons of color full participation in the American justice system for decades." Further, the two scholars found that "prosecutors have used preemptory challenges to exclude the only minority juror or jurors on the panel, leaving an all white jury to hear the case" (Martin and Thompson 2007). Thus, those who believe racism does play a large role in the death penalty cite a disproportionate number of death sentences for African-Americans and bias in the judicial system as the problem's causes.

Of course, not all agree with this interpretation. In fact, Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas argued about the topic just a few weeks ago, debating over another case of a Georgian man on death row. According to the Washington Post, the two were tasked with determining whether race was one of the factors that left Rick Walker, a black man who had killed a white person, with a death sentence. While the Supreme Court found that race did not affect his sentence because the victim did not raise this argument in the lower courts, Justice Stevens criticized the Georgian court's handling of the issue of race and the death penalty. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, "defended Georgia's handling of the case and disputed Stevens's contention that the state's courts were required to review similar cases to guard against racial and other disparities" (Markon 2008).

Those who believe race does not play a role in the death penalty share views similar to Justice Thomas's. These people argue that more people of color are on death row because they commit more crimes, and that each case is handled by a jury of one's peers to insure fairness. A statistical analysis of Maryland's use of the death penalty supports these views, finding that "by itself, the offender's race does not play a clear role in the way cases are handled" (Tickner 2003). Tickner's (2003) findings, however, did note that the victim's race made a difference, and that those who murder white victims were more likely to receive the death penalty. Others who do not believe race plays a crucial role suggest that murder is murder, and offenders are sentenced to death because of their crimes, not their race. Lowe (2008) is of this view, and he suggests that allowing those who have committed crimes to face lesser penalties for their crimes is not a way to end racism. Lowe (2003) also cites a 1991 study that found whites to receive the death penalty more than blacks. Thus, arguments against the idea that race plays a role in the death penalty suggest that those who commit crimes deserve to be punished, and the legal system does an excellent job of determining these punishments. Some believe that race plays no role in the death penalty, while others suggest the role it plays is not strong enough to warrant any change. Further, proponents of this view suggest the criminal justice system is sufficient.

Whether or not the death penalty is racist is still an issue of much debate in the United States, as is the death penalty itself. Those who believe the punishment is racist suggest that people of color suffer this harsh penalty far more than white people. In addition to consequences for those on death row, the role of race in the death penalty has severe consequences for society. Even as the United States is preparing to make way for a black president, racism to this degree could be detrimental to a society. First, it establishes people of color as second-class citizens, unequal to others in that they are deserving of harsher penalties. Furthermore, when black murderers are given the death penalty for killing white victims, but white murderers do not receive the same consequences for murdering blacks, white life is established as more important than black life. For this reason, the issue of death penalty and race affects the whole society. If a society embodies values that suggest one life is more important than… [END OF PREVIEW]

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