The Link Between Capital Punishment, Race and Police Brutality: Report

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Photo by Don Sniegowski via Flickr

Out of the 57 people currently on federal death row, 34 are people of color, some of whom “were convicted and condemned by all-white juries,” according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

The figures underline the racism at the core of how capital punishment is used in the U.S., and help to provide a context for today’s protests against police brutality, said the DPIC, a nonprofit group advocating for abolition of the death penalty.

“There are strong links between the indelible images of a knee pressed against George Floyd’s neck, the bodies of lynching victims surrounded by jubilant crowds, and the proud onlookers at the last public execution,” the report said.

“Exploring these connections is essential to any full discussion of race and the death penalty in the United States.”

Since the Civil War, white southerners used the criminal justice system as a way to maintain power in a racist society, said the report, entitled “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.”

Bias against Black Americans continues to be reflected in the modern use of capital punishment, said the report, whose principal author was Ngozi Ndulue.

“Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process,” Robert Dunham, the DPIC’s executive director, wrote in the report’s introduction.

“The modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow segregation.”

 Since 1977, 295 African Americans have received the death penalty for murdering a white man, while only 21 white people have received the death penalty for the murder of an African-American man.

Qualified Black jurors were also twice as likely to be removed from the jury than qualified white jurors, the study said.

In the post-Civil War era, lynchings in southern states were effectively a form of social control, with at least 2,000 Black victims alone between 1865 and 1876. They were “almost a daily occurrence” between 1880 and the 1930s, the authors said, citing research by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Just 12 states accounted for 4,084 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, making up 92 percent of the lynchings during that time period across 20 states.

There was a stark disparity between the punishment meted out to Black Americans and white Americans. In former slave states, the report said, African-American men were often given a mandatory death penalty for the alleged rape of a white woman, while a white man faced a possible two-to-20-year-term for the rape of a white woman and “fine and imprisonment” for the rape of a Black woman.

Throughout U.S. history, “no white man has ever been executed for the rape of a Black woman or girl in which the victim was not killed,” according to the report.

In the pre-Civil War period, rape perpetrated by a slave owner against a slave was considered a “less serious crime.”

While lynchings appear to be a thing of the past, their legacy of brutal, biased punishment is manifested today in police brutality, sentencing disparities, and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

More evidence of the link between police misconduct, race and the death penalty can be found in data about death row exonerations, the report said, noting that exoneration cases involving an African American sentenced to death for murder are 22 percent more likely to be based on findings of police misconduct.

The racial roots of capital punishment are also evident in the justice system’s treatment of Native Americans, Mexican Americans and other groups, the report noted.

“Native Americans were subject to extremes of the death penalty, from the executions of young children to mass executions,” said the report.

Citing the case of Lezmond Mitchell, executed last month for the 2001 murders of Alyce Slim and her nine-year-old granddaughter on Navajo lands in Arizona, the report added, “the use of the death penalty in disregard of tribal sovereignty continues to this day.”

Similarly, the report cited research showing “hundreds of lynchings and episodes of mob violence that occurred in the Southwest between 1848 and 1928” targeting Mexican Americans.

“It is not so much that the death penalty has a race problem, as it is that the race problems of America manifest themselves through the implementation of the death penalty,” wrote Scott Phillips and Justin F. Marceau in a forthcoming Harvard-Civil Liberties Law Review paper, entitled Whom the State Kills, quoted in the report.

See also: Victim’s Race a Factor in Death Penalty, The Crime Report, Oct. 24, 2017

Download the full report here.

 This summary was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Emily Riley.

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