Race

The Death Penalty in the U.S. Military

The U.S. military has its own laws and court system separate from those of the states and the federal government. Although the military justice system allows the death penalty, no executions have been carried out in over 50 years. The last execution was the hanging on April 13, 1961 of U.S. Army Private John Bennett for rape and attempted murder. The military death penalty law was struck down in 1983 but was reinstated in 1984 with new rules detailing the aggravating circumstances that make a case death-eligible. Only about one-third of the capital cases tried under this law resulted in a death sentence. As of 1997, military law allows for an alternative sentence of life without parole. Six men are currently on the military death row, which is housed in the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The President has the power to commute any military death sentence. A 2012 study indicated that defendants of color in the military were twice as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Fall 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed a continuing decline in the size of the death row population. The new total of 3,035 represented a 13% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,471. The racial demographics of death row have been steady, with white inmates making up 43% of death row, black inmates composing 42%, and Latino inmates 13%. California continued to have the largest death row, with 745 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (198), and Pennsylvania (188). Arkansas, which last carried out an execution nearly nine years ago, had a 13% decrease in its death row population since last year. The report also contains information about executions. Since 1976, 10% (143) of those executed were defendants who gave up their appeals.

Supreme Court to Review Impact of Eliminating Black and Hispanic Jurors in Captial Case

On October 20, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Chappell v. Ayala (No. 13-1428), a death penalty case from California in which all the black and Hispanic potential jurors were struck from the defendant's trial. Hector Ayala was convicted in 1989 of three murders in San Diego. At his trial, Ayala's attorneys argued that the prosecutor was improperly striking jurors on the basis of race. The judge reviewed the prosecutor's explanation for the strikes without defense attorneys present, saying it was necessary to protect the prosecutor's trial strategy, and concluded the strikes were not racially motivated. The California Supreme Court found that any potential constitutional error related to the racial makeup of the jury or the subsequent closed review was harmless, rejecting Ayala's appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala relief and ordered California to retry him. The 9th Circuit held that the constitutional issues could be reviewed without deference to the state court opinion because no ruling based on federal law had been made against Ayala, and that the errors made at trial had an injurious effect on the jury's verdict. The Supreme Court will consider whether more deference was due the state court's decision and whether the 9th Circuit used the correct standard in determining that the trial errors were harmful.

Death Penalty Lawyer Called America's Mandela

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the work of Bryan Stevenson (pictured), referring to him as "America's Nelson Mandela." Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, has focused his career on representing indigent defendants, especially those on death row throughout the south. In his new book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of representing and eventually winning the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a black man unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Kristof asked Stevenson if "such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice" is less common today. Stevenson said, "If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago."

ARTICLES: Excluding Blacks from Death Penalty Juries Violates Rights As Citizens

An article in the most recent issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review examines the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service, particularly in death penalty cases in North Carolina. In Bias in the Box, Dax-Devlon Ross notes, "Alongside the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury is an enduring pillar of our democracy....Nevertheless, there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion." Ross traces the history of civil rights litigation that secured blacks the right to participate in juries, but he also shows the continued use of strategies to remove them from service. In particular, the repeal of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act in 2013 removed an important protection of equality in jury service. Before the act was rescinded, a special court reduced the sentences of four death row inmates because of patterns of racial bias in jury selection. In one case, a prosecutor's notes described potential jurors as "blk wino - drugs" and as living in a "blk, high drug" neighborhood. Ross quotes a number of potential black jurors who wanted to serve in North Carolina but felt they were excluded because of their race.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Spring 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.

STUDIES: White Jurors More Likely to Recommend Death Sentences for Latino Defendants

A new study by Professors Cynthia Willis-Esqueda (pictured) of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Russ K.E. Espinoza of California State University found that white jurors were more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latino defendants than for white defendants in California. Researchers gave case descriptions to 500 white and Latino people who had reported for jury duty in southern California, then asked them to choose a sentence of life without parole or death. The description was based on a real capital case, but each juror was given one of eight scenarios which altered the race and income level of the defendant and the amount of mitigating evidence. White jurors recommended a death sentence about half the time for Latino defendants who were poor, but only one-third of the time for poor white defendants. By comparison, Latino jurors recommended a death sentence only about one-quarter of the time, regardless of the ethnicity or socioeconomic class of the defendant.

NEW VOICES: Al Sharpton Debates the Death Penalty at Yale

Baptist minister and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton spoke in opposition to the death penalty in a recent debate at the Yale Political Union. Sharpton noted the dispropotion of blacks who are to sentenced to death compared to whites. He also raised concerns about the risk of executing the innocent, pointing out that many inmates have been exonerated from death row. He said the lower murder rates in states that do not have the death penalty indicate the death penalty does not deter murder. “We are not preventing anything, and we are not providing justice,” he concluded. “We cannot answer murder with murder.” Student representatives from a variety of political groups offered arguments both in favor of and opposed to the death penalty.

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