racial disparity in the application of the death penalty

Racial Disparity in the Application of the Death Penalty


Since the days of slavery in which minorities were considered possessions, through the periods of Jim Crow rules and lynching, the death penalty has always been plagued by race. Regrettably, the days of racial disparity in the application of capital punishment are not a vestige of the past. Presently, there exists a great disparity in the implementation of federal capital punishment. Racial minorities are being charged under federal capital punishment far beyond their percentage in the overall population or the populace of criminal offenders. Evaluation of prosecutions under the death penalty or capital punishment of the Anti-drug Abuse Act  indicates that eighty nine percent of the selected defendants for death penalty have either been Mexican-American or African-American (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009). In addition, the figure of prosecutions under the other acts has been on the increase in the previous years with no visible decline in the ethnic disparities. Almost all of the recently accepted federal death penalties have been against black defendants.  This sequence of inequality further adds to the proof that ethnicity continues to play an intolerable part in the application of death penalty in America. Additionally, it confirms the conclusion that the capital punishment experiment has totally failed.

Background on Death Penalty and Race

Throughout United States’ history, capital punishment has declined unreasonably on racial minorities. For instance, since 1930, almost 90% of those executed for rape crime were African-American (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009). Presently, about fifty percent of those on death row come form minority populace accounting for 20 % of the nation’s population. In the year 1972, the High Court overhauled existing capital punishment provisions in part due to the risks that those being chosen to die were selected out of ethnic prejudice. The discretion of the juries and judges in imposing capital punishment was thought to be behind the selective application of capital punishment, feeding bigotries against the accused on the grounds of poverty or if the accused belonged to an unpopular minority while saving those in a protected social position. Subsequent to the Furman decision, courts embraced sentencing processes that were meant to eradicate the race influence from the process of death sentencing. Nevertheless, proof of racial disparity in the application of death penalty continues. Almost 40 % of those sentenced to death since 1976 have been black minorities even though black minorities comprise only twelve percent of the total population (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009). Additionally, in nearly all death penalty cases, the race of the plaintiff is white.

Last year alone, 89 % of the implemented capital punishment involved white fatalities, even though 50 % of the total homicides in America involve black victims. Of the two hundred and twenty nine executions that have been carried out since the capital punishment was reinstated, only a single case has involved a white defendant for the killing of a black individual (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009). According to the U.S General Accounting report, race was found to be a major influence on the probability of the defendant being prosecuted for murder or receiving the capital punishment. In other words, those who killed whites were found more probable to receive death sentence compared to those who killed blacks. Race still continues to play a pivotal role in ascertaining who shall die and who shall live.

The Federal Capital Punishment

Since the Supreme Court’s Decision commonly known as Furman’s decision in 1972, the issue of the death sentence has been almost solely a state prerogative. Congress has failed to adopt general procedures for sentencing that would re-establish the federal death sentence. No federal capital punishments have been implemented since 1963, and until recently, prosecutions under federal capital punishment have been rare. But this has changed over the previous years, and may change if a pending legislation is adopted to increase the federal government’s role in death penalties. The anti-Drug Abuse legislation included provisions which established an enforceable federal capital punishment for murders perpetrated by those involved in drug trafficking. The manner in which the legislation has been implemented by states since it was signed by President Reagan in 1988 exposes some glaring disparities. For instance, almost seventy five percent of those charged of being involved in drug trafficking activities have been whites and only twenty four percent of the convicts have been black (Death Penalty Information Center, 2009).

However, of those selected for capital punishment under this legislation, the opposite holds true; seventy eight percent of those convicted have been minorities and a mere eleven percent of the prosecuted have been white. Although the figure of cases involving homicide in the collection that the prosecutors are selecting from is fairly unknown, the nearly exclusive medley of minority for the capital punishment, and the obvious contrast between non-capital and capital prosecutions reveal a high degree of racial disparity in the enforcement of the federal capital punishment that even exceeds the pre-Furman sequences. Overall, as Donna argues, “Though African American makes up twelve percent of the national population, they represent close to half of those who are incarcerated for crimes” (2003)

The infectious occurrence of racial disparity in the application of death penalty indicates that this issue has failed to slacken with time and is unlimited to a particular state of the country. The available body of evidence indicates that as long as regions continue to utilize the capital punishment, some defendants who are innocent will be arguably sentenced to death. Glenn and Michael (2007) have argued that these kinds of imperfection have become increasingly evident in the judicial system and researchers have recorded a consistent sequence of disparities in the implementation of the capital punishment that challenges the claim that the penalty is enforced in an equitable and consistent manner.

Causes of Injustice

According to (Glenn and Michael, 2007), one of the probable causes for this ongoing crisis is that those making the crucial capital punishment decisions in America are nearly exclusively white. According to research conducted in Philadelphia, Illinois, California, Florida and others, those who are believed to have murdered whites are more probable to receive death sentences compared to those suspected of perpetrating similar offenses against minorities (Glenn and Michael, 2007). Further, a careful evaluation of death penalty and race in Philadelphia indicated that the chances of getting a death sentence are almost four times high if the accused is black. These findings were obtained after evaluating and controlling case difference including the ruthlessness of the crime as well as the defendant’s background. The results of the analysis were obvious; minorities were receiving capital punishment far in excess compared to other defendants for analogous crimes. The composition of the decision makers has been pointed as part of the elaboration as to why the application of capital punishment remains largely racially skewed. Most of the key decision makers in cases involving capital punishment all over the country are nearly exclusive white individuals.

These studies underscore an importunate sequence of racial disparities which have occurred throughout the nation over the previous twenty years. Evaluations of the connection between the death penalty and race, with changing levels of sophistication and thoroughness, have been carried out in all major capital punishment states. In almost ninety percent of these appraisals, there existed a sequence of either race-of-defendant or race-of-victim discrimination and in some cases both. The enormity of the proximate link between race and capital punishment is revealed when evaluated with researches in other fields. Race is more probable to impact the death sentencing than smoking impacts the probability of dying from cardiac ailment. The latter proof has elicited enormous alterations in societal practice and law, while racial disparity in the capital punishment has been ignored.

Implications of Racial Injustice

Despite irresistible proof of discrimination, the court’s response has been to rebuff relief on the basis that sequences of racial disparities are deficient to attest racial discrimination in individual cases. With the exception of Kentucky, most legislatures have failed to carry out corrective measures to mitigate increased cases of racial bias. Despite the preceding illustration of legislation in rejoinder to similar bias in such field as housing and employment, legislatures on the state and federal level have fallen short of passing civil rights for fear of halting the death penalty totally. Consequently, the sore aggravates as death sentences hasten and appeals are truncated (Olatunde, 2007).

 The human outlay of this ethnic injustice is immeasurable. The decisions concerning who dies and who lives are being accomplished along racial boundaries by an almost all white association of prosecutors. The capital punishment symbolizes a stark sign of the impacts of racial bias. In most single cases, this problem is mirrored in ethnic smears hurled at minority defendants by the defense and the prosecution. This results in black juries being mechanically barred from the service and in the assigning of greater resources to white fatalities of crimes at the expense of minorities. It also results in death penalties in which minorities are repeatedly put to death for killing white, but on the other hand, whites are nearly never sentenced to death for murdering minorities. Such a framework of injustice is not only unconstitutional and unfair but also tears the very values to which the country attempts to adhere.


Race continues to afflict the application of capital punishment in America. On the state echelon, racial discrimination is most noticeable in the principal selection of numerous cases involving white fatalities. On the federal stage, selected cases have nearly exclusively involved marginalized defendants. Under the judicial system, the central government has for a long time embraced the role of safeguarding against racially predisposed application of the death penalty. But under the active federal capital punishment statute, the national record of racial discrimination has been worse compared to that of regional governments. So far, the total number of prosecutions is generally small compared to capital prosecutions in the states. However, the figures are increasing rapidly, and under law presently being proposed in Congress, the national government would assume a broader function in prosecution of death penalties.


Donna, C. (2003).  Addressing the real world of racial injustice in the criminal justice

system. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 93(4), 827-879.

Death Penalty Information Center. (2009). Racial disparities in Federal death penalty

prosecutions. Retrieved June 6, 2009 from



Glenn, L., and Michael, L. (2007). Monitoring death sentencing decisions.  Human

Rights: Journal of the Section of Individual Rights & Responsibilities, 34(2),1-4.

Olatunde, J. (2007).  Legislating racial fairness in criminal justice Columbia Human

Rights Law Review, 39(1), 233-260.


"Looking for a Similar Assignment? Order now and Get a Discount!