I don't know about you, but
when I get into a discussion about the death penalty, my first
thoughts go to the victim and to the brutality of the murder. That is
the foundation of the just nature of the death penalty.
Too often these days, however the death penalty is discussed in
different terms. Inevitably, with the racial history of this country,
the effect of race in the application of the death penalty has become
a central part of the death-penalty discourse. This is particularly
true as some politicians are making the case for a death-penalty
moratorium, in part to consider whether the death penalty is
All too often, however, those arguments are spurious. In the death
penalty debate, it should be the facts, and not the hype, that are in
be black and white.
A closer look at the statistics
Death Penalty Information Center
(DPIC) reports that black murderers represent 35% of those
executed, white murderers 56%. As the argument goes, this must be
evidence of systemic racism, as blacks represent 12% of the
population, whites 74%.
Often such discussion begins with the obvious:
the race of the defendant.
Fortunately, the United States does not
execute people based on their population counts but on the murders
they commit. As blacks represent 47% of murderers and whites 37%, we
see that whites are twice as likely to be executed for committing
murder as are their black counterparts. Furthermore, the Bureau
of Justice Statistics says that whites sentenced to death are
executed 17 months more quickly than blacks.
With 98% of all head prosecutors in the
United States being white, according
to DPIC, how is such a result possible? Maybe prosecutors, judges and
juries are focusing on the crimes and not the race of the defendant.
That is not the case, say anti-death
penalty groups, such as Amnesty International, and now the United
Nations. If you adjust for the specific aggravating factors present
within capital crimes, you find clear evidence of racism.
Death-penalty opponents note, for
example, that the Supreme Court, in the famous race-based challenge to
the death penalty (McCleskey v. Kemp), found in 1987 that those
who murderer whites were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to
death than those who murder blacks, under similar circumstances. Dr.
David Baldus, who did the statistical study on McCleskey's behalf,
also completed a recent study in Philadelphia where it is was reported
to show that black murderers were four times more likely to receive a
death sentence than white murderers.
With such results, how can anyone
dispute the racist application of the death penalty? Quite easily. The
Supreme Court, as well as many others, confused odds with multiples.
The data reflect odds of 4-to-1, not four times more likely.
What difference does it make? In Baldus'
Philadelphia study, we find that if only 2% more white murderers had
been sentenced to death and only 2.5% fewer black murderers had been
sentenced to death, then each group would have been sentenced to death
by juries at the same rate -- a far cry from the 400% differential
stated within the incorrect interpretation of "four times"!
A punishment that fits the crimes
the related statutes, produces the same conclusion.
The next issue raised is the victim's race. While blacks and whites
comprise about an equal number of murder victims, the ratio of
white-to-black victims in death-penalty cases is about 7-to-1. This
has given rise to the allegation that the "system" only
cares about white murder victims.
A horrible accusation, if true. However, the ratio of
white-to-black victims in the aggravated circumstances necessary for a
capital murder conviction (rape, robbery, car-jacking, burglary,
police murders, serial/multiple murders, etc.) is from 4-to-1 to
8-to-1 -- numbers consistent with the victim ratios on death row.
The final resting place for the racism charge lies within those
cases where blacks have been executed for murdering whites and whites
have been executed for murdering blacks. There have been 144 blacks
and 10 whites executed under such circumstances, or a ratio of
As blacks are about 2.5 times more likely to murder whites than the
other way around, there appears to be a huge disparity in such
executions. Is racism the reason?
If we look at robbery, the aggravated crime found most often in
capital cases, we find that when there is a robbery with injury, the
ratio of black robber/white victims versus white robbers/black victims
is 21-to-1. Again, when looking at the circumstances consistent with
capital crimes, we find no evidence of racial bias.
The determining factor for sentencing in death-penalty cases is
what it should be -- the aggravating nature of the crimes. Both the
Rand Corp. study of 1991 and the research presented by Smith College
professors Stanley Rothman and Stephen Powers in 1994 confirm that
In other words, it appears that any racial variations present
within the data are reflective of the crimes themselves and not racial
bias within the system. A review of those studies, as well as of
criminal-justice statistics, within the context of the aggravating
circumstances present within capital murders
Don't assume the worst motives
There will always be some variables of race, ethnicity and class
within any study of criminal-justice practices, and based on historic,
as well as current prejudices, we can never lower our guard. Because
all studies are subject to poor protocols, bias and misinterpretation,
we must make reasoned judgments based on as many respected
considerations as we may have at our disposal.
And even if criminal-justice statistics did not show the obvious
correlation between crimes and the application of the death penalty,
we should note what the Supreme Court stated in McCleskey: "Where
the discretion that is fundamental to our criminal justice process is
involved, we decline to assume that what is unexplained [by measured
factors] is invidious."
Sound ideas should not be eliminated based on misguided statistics.
In the case of the death penalty, the facts lead to only one
conclusion. No moratorium is necessary.
Dudley Sharp is vice
president of Justice for All, a Texas-based victims' rights group.