Race

STUDIES: Lynchings in America Related to Racial Bias in Death Penalty

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented more lynchings in American history than previously reported, particularly of African Americans in the South, and has drawn parallels between this practice and the modern death penalty. According to EJI, the report--titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror --"makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation." The report draws connections between lynchings and abuses in the criminal justice system that persist today: "[L]ynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era." (emphasis added). A New York Times editorial about the report made a similar point: "The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned."

STUDIES: Death Penalty Overwhelmingly Used for White-Victim Cases

According to a new study principally authored by Prof. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina, the death penalty is far more likely to be used if the underlying murder victim was white rather than black. The study examined every U.S. execution from 1976-2013 and found, "The single most reliable predictor of whether a defendant in the United States will be executed is the race of the victim....Capital punishment is very rarely used where the victim is a Black male, despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide." Of the 534 white defendants executed for the murder of a single victim, only nine involved the murder of a black male victim. Although blacks make up about 47% of all murder victims, they make up only 17% of victims in cases resulting in an execution. The authors concluded, "In [the death penalty's] modern history as in its use in previous eras, racial bias in its application is consistently high. In addition to the threat to the equal protection of the law that these numbers suggest, such overwhelming evidence of differential treatment erodes public support for the judicial system."

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES: Yale University Offers Free Online Course on Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage is a free on-line course offered by Yale Law School. The course is taught by Stephen B. Bright, President of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia. According to Yale's description, "This course explores the imposition of the death penalty in the United States with particular attention to the influence of race and poverty, and the disadvantages of mental illness or intellectual disability of those facing death." Each of the 13 course sessions introduces a topic within capital punishment and features video of Bright's lectures, as well as background readings and resources. The course is available through Yale's website, YouTube, and iTunesU.

South Carolina Vacates the Conviction of 14-Year-Old Executed in 1944

On December 16, a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction of George Stinney, Jr., the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last century. Judge Carmen Mullen wrote: “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.” Stinney, a black, 14-year-old boy, was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two young white girls. Police said Stinney confessed to the crime, but no confession was ever produced. His sister said in an affidavit in 2009 that she was with Stinney on the day of the murders and he could not have committed them, but she was not called to testify at his trial. The Stinney family was forced to leave town because of danger of violence. His trial lasted just 3 hours, and the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to die by electrocution. His attorneys did not file an appeal, and he was put to death less than three months after the offense.

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."

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