The Effects Of Race On Sentencing In

Capital Punishment Cases Essay, Research Paper

The Effects of Race on Sentencing in Capital Punishment Cases

Throughout history, minorities have been ill-represented in the criminal justice system, particularly in cases where

the possible outcome is death. In early America, blacks were lynched for the slightest violation of informal laws

and many of these killings occured without any type of due process. As the judicial system has matured, minorities

have found better representation but it is not completely unbiased. In the past twenty years strict controls have

been implemented but the system still has symptoms of racial bias. This racial bias was first recognized by the

Supreme Court in Fruman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). The Supreme Court Justices decide that the death

penalty was being handed out unfairly and according to Gest (1996) the Supreme Court felt the death penalty was

being imposed “freakishly’ and ‘wantonly” and “most often on blacks.” Several years later in Gregg v. Georgia,

428 U.S. 153 (1976), the Supreme Court decided, with efficient controls, the death penalty could be used

constitutionally. Yet, even with these various controls, the system does not effectively eliminate racial bias.

Since Gregg v. Georgia the total population of all 36 death rows has grown as has the number of judicial controls

used by each state. Of the 3,122 people on death row 41% are black while 48% are white (Gest, 1996, 41). This

figure may be acceptable at first glance but one must take into account the fact that only 12% of the U.S.

population is black (Smolowe, 1991, 68). Carolyn Snurkowski of the Florida attorney generals office believes that

the disproportionate number of blacks on death row can be explained by the fact that, “Many black murders result

from barroom brawls that wouldn’t call for the death penalty, but many white murders occur on top of another

offense, such as robbery” (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25). This may be true but the Washington Legal Foundation

offers their own explanation by arguing that “blacks are arrested for murder at a higher rate than are whites. When

arrest totals are factored in , ‘the probability of a white murderer ending up on death row is 33 percent greater than

in the case of a black murderer” (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25).

According to Professor Steven Goldstein of Florida State University, “There are so many discretionary stages:

whether the prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, whether the jury recommends it, whether the judge

gives it” (As cited in Smolowe, 1991, 68). It is in these discretionary stages that racial biases can infect the system

of dealing out death sentences. Smolowe (1991) shows this infection by giving examples of two cases decided in

February of 1991, both in Columbus. The first example is a white defendant named James Robert Caldwell who

was convicted of stabbing his 10 year old son repeatedly and raping and killing his 12 year old daughter. The

second example is of a black man, Jerry Walker, convicted of killing a 22-year-old white man while robbing a

convenience-store. Caldwell’s trial lasted three times as long as Walker’s and Caldwell received a life sentence

while Walker received a death sentence. In these examples, it is believed that not only the race of the victims, but

also the value of the victims, biased the sentencing decisions. The 22-year-old man killed by Walker was the son

of a Army commander at Fort Benning while Caldwell’s victims were not influential in the community. In

examples such as these, it becomes evident that racial bias, in any or all of the discretionary stages, becomes racial

injustice in the end. Smolowe (1991) also makes the point that Columbus is not alone: “A 1990 report prepared by

the government’s General Accounting Office found ‘a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the

charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.”

In an article by Seligman (1994), Professor Joseph Katz of Georgia State “and other scholars have made a separate

point about bias claims based on the ‘devalued lives’ of murder victims.” Seligman also asserts that those claiming

bias believe that it is in the race of the victim and not the race of the defendant, and because the lives of blacks

have been “devalued,’ people who murder blacks are less likely to receive death sentences than those who

murder whites” (Seligman, 1994, 113). An Iowa Law Professor, David Baldus, also found that “juries put a

premium on the lives of victims” (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80). In a study of more than 2,000 Georgia murder

cases, Baldus found that “those who killed whites were 4.3 times as likely to receive the death penalty as those

who killed blacks. And blacks who killed whites were most likely of all to be condemned to die” (As cited in

Lacayo, 1987, 80). According to Gest (1996), of those executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 80%

have murdered whites, while only 12% of those executed in the same time period have had black victims. These

figures show an obvious trend of racial bias against those who murdered whites. Could these disparities be

because, as sociologist Michael Radelet put it, “Prosecutors are political animals, they are influenced by

community outrage, which is subtly influenced by race,” or is it because “it is built into the system that those in the

predominant race will be more concerned about crime victims of their own race,” as stated by Welsh White of the

University of Pittsburgh Law School (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25).

Because of the immense possibility of discrimination in sentencing in capital punishment cases, each stage of

prosecution must be controlled as much as possible. Although these offenders are the worst the criminal justice

system has to offer, prosecutors must be encouraged to consider the crime and not the race of the victim or

offender and the judge must attempt to exclude the same racial issue when deciding the punishment. I believe

Justice Brennan said it best when he wrote the dissenting opinion in a capital punishment appeal. He wrote, “It is

tempting to pretend that minorities on death row share a fate in no way connected to our own, that our treatment

of them sounds no echoes beyond the chambers in which they die. Such an illusion is ultimately corrosive, for the

reverberations of injustice are not so easily confined” (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80). With great effort, the judicial

controls can begin to battle the racial bias of Americas Judicial system but to completely eliminate such a bias, the

people involved in the judicial process must learn to look past the race of the offender or the value of the victim,

and instead focus on circumstances of the crime.



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