Racial Disparity in Executions Documented in Study

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Black lives don’t matter so much as white ones when it comes to the death penalty, a new study found. Building on data at the heart of a 1987 Supreme Court decision, the study concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims, the New York Times reports. The current Supreme Court’s conservative majority has expressed impatience with efforts to block executions, and last month it issued a pair of 5-to-4 rulings that allowed federal executions to resume after a 17-year hiatus. The court came within one vote of addressing racial bias in the death penalty in the 1987 case McCleskey v. Kemp. By 5-to-4, the court ruled that even solid statistical evidence of race discrimination in the capital justice system did not violate the Constitution. Retired Justice Lewis Powell, author of the opinion, asked whether there was any vote he would change, cited the McCleskey case.

Opponents of the death penalty have compared the decision to the Dred Scott case, the 1857 ruling that enslaved Black people were property and not citizens. McCleskey considered a study conducted by the late law Prof. David Baldus. Killers of white people were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as killers of Black people, Baldus found. The new study, in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, examined not only death sentences but also whether defendants sentenced to death were  executed. “The problematic sentencing disparity discovered by Baldus is exacerbated at the execution stage,” wrote Scott Phillips and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver. Their study found that 22 of the 972 defendants convicted of killing whites were executed, as compared with two of the 1,503 defendants convicted of killing a Black.

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