by Dale Chappell
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Duane Buck, a Black man who was painted by an expert at trial as more dangerous and deserved to die simply because he was Black. The Court held that “some toxins can be deadly in small doses,” rejecting the state’s argument that the expert’s comments weren’t as damaging as the evidence against the man.
But not all racial bias with the death penalty is so obvious. Sometimes those “small doses” add up. That’s what a September 15, 2020, report by the Death Penalty Information Center concluded. “The death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies throughout United States history,” Ngozi Ndulue, the report’s lead author, said.
The report identified the death penalty as the descendant to slavery and lynching. There are 2.3 million prisons in the U.S. with about 2,600 of them on death row. But, before the death penalty existed, there were lynching in the streets, mostly in the Southern states. It’s those states today that impose the death penalty as a legal substitution for lynching, the study says. It was also the Southern states that used executions of slaves as a way to control the Black population and prevent uprisings.
White victims tend to drive the push for the death penalty, researchers said. “Structural racism” occurs when all-White juries (or mostly White) are picked to convict a person of color for the death penalty. This is because juries are selected from lists of people who can vote and have a driver’s license, a list many in the Black community won’t be on. Add to that the prevalence of White prosecutors: 95 percent of elected prosecutors are White, and 100 percent of prosecutors in six states with the death penalty are White.
Researchers also noted that the death penalty has been an anchor for mass incarceration. It legitimizes harsh mandatory-minimum sentences, like the racially biased crack cocaine sentences of the 1990s that filled the nation’s prisons. Having the death penalty, they say, makes long sentences and life in prison seem almost “compassionate.”
Police misconduct also played a role. Exonerations of Blacks for murder convictions were 22 percent more likely to have involved police misconduct, according to the report. And over-policing of Black communities means that African Americans are looked at with suspicion more often in murder investigations.
The Black Lives Matter movement has taken notice, with protests after the last 22 people sentenced to death in Los Angeles County were Black. They also link extrajudicial killing by cops to judicial killings in the name of law enforcement by the use of the death penalty. It’s all the same phenomenon, they say.
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