While the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for those who commit the “worst of the worst” crimes, research indicates that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on murderers who kill white victims—effectively undervaluing the lives of Black victims, according to a Columbia Human Rights Law Review paper.
The only way to send a message to Black victims that their lives matter is to completely end the death penalty, writes author Alexis Hoag, a Columbia Law School lecturer.
Hoag said her research shows that the status quo for capital punishment sentencing currently “allows for prejudice, bias and racism to persist.”
“Juries continue to sentence a disproportionately high number of defendants who have been convicted of murdering white victims,” compared to victims of any other race, Hoag wrote.
Hoag cited a 1990 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) of death penalty cases decided since Furman v Georgia, which ruled that hanging — the way capital punishment was being carried out in 1972 — was unconstitutional and considered “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In the 18 years of death penalty cases studied by the GAO following Furman, the GAO concluded that “[i]n 82 percent of the studies … those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.”
Moreover, the 1990 report found that “[t]he race of victim influence … was stronger for the earlier stages of the judicial process (e.g. prosecutorial decision to charge defendant with a capital offense…).”
Hoag says these trends have remained consistent over the years, though it hasn’t been widely studied because many only care about the race of the defendant — not the victim, she writes.
However, a 2004 study of death penalty cases from the pre-Furman era revealed that “prosecutors were 4.3 times more likely to seek the death penalty against a defendant charged with murdering a white victim than a similarly situated defendant charged with murdering a Black victim,” Hoag cites.
Corroborating this, the Death Penalty Information Center has calculated that over “75 percent of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50 percent of murder victims generally are white.”
As a result, Hoag wrote, “death sentencing schemes tend to undervalue Black murder victims’ lives,” considering that in cases where a Black person is the victim, their killer does not get the same capital punishment sentence as their white killer counterparts.
Because of this disparity, Hoag argued that the next challenge to the death penalty should be on equal racial protection grounds.
“Placing equal value on Black lives — perpetrators and victims — relative to white lives, would compel the criminal legal system to address longstanding racial discrimination in the operation of the death penalty,” she wrote
Hoag argued the solution is not to execute more people to create an even playing field with equal racial representation on death row—but to abolish the death penalty, since it’s impossible to keep the justice system free from racial discrimination and arbitrariness.
“A natural extension of valuing the lives of Black victims is to value the lives of all defendants, particularly Black defendants charged with aggravated murders,” Hoag concluded.
“It is time for this nation to cease tinkering with the machinery of death and to abolish capital punishment.”
Alexis Hoag is a Columbia Law School lecturer in law and the inaugural practitioner in residence at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. She has also spent over a decade as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer primarily representing capitally convicted clients in federal post-conviction proceedings.
The full paper can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for TCR. She welcomes comments from readers