A Connecticut judge has ruled that seven death row inmates can pursue their claim that the state’s death penalty is racially and geographically biased, reports the Hartford Courant. It appears that only one other state court – New Jersey – has agreed to hear such claims in the past 20 years. Others have rejected the claims before evidence is presented, citing a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that evidence specific to a defendant – not statistics showing systemwide bias – is necessary to challenge an individual’s death sentence on a racial claim. Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr. said Connecticut’s constitution affords defendants greater legal rights than the U.S. Constitution, so, they have the right to present the kind of systemwide bias evidence that the 1987 ruling barred.
“Connecticut is not closing its eyes to this claim as most state courts have done,” said University of Iowa law Prof. David Baldus, who has studied bias in the death penalty in four states and in the city of Philadelphia. “So that’s why this is an unusual case. Unusual and important.” The inmates’ attorneys have commissioned two studies on racial and geographic bias in the meting of the death penalty. The first, a 2003 report, found evidence of geographic bias, but did not conclude that a killer’s race contributed to whether he received the death penalty. The murder victim’s race, however, was found to be a factor. The later study, by Yale Law School Professor John Donohue, concluded that the capital punishment system is capricious and random; nonwhite defendants are treated more harshly than white defendants, especially in cases with white victims; and the so-called “egregiousness” of the killings seems to be irrelevant when it comes to who is sentenced to death, both within and across judicial districts.