U.S. MILITARY: Latest Sentence Reversal Follows Trend of Rarely Using Death Penalty

The U.S. Military has not carried out an execution of a service member for 50 years. Of the 11 military death sentences that have completed direct appeal, 9 (82%) have been reversed.  On August 22, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence of former Lance Corporal Kenneth G. Parker, the only Marine on the military's death row. The court also overturned one of Parker’s two murder convictions after finding that his guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Judge J.A. Maksym, while condemning Parker's actions, said, “We have upset aspects of this verdict and will set aside the death penalty due to numerous and substantive procedural and legal failures at trial.”  Parker is now facing a life sentence without parole at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Parker's co-defendant, Wade Walker, had also been sentenced to death but had his sentence reduced to life earlier.  Since 1984, 11 out of 16 military death sentences have been overturned. The last military execution occurred in 1961.

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STUDIES: Military Death Sentence More Likely for Defendants of Color

A recent study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology about the U.S. Military death penalty system found that racial disparities among those sentenced to death are worse in the military than in other criminal courts.  The study, conducted by Catherine Grosso of Michigan State's College of Law, the late David Baldus of the University of Iowa College of Law, and others, reviewed all potentially death-eligible military prosecutions from 1984 to 2005 and identified 105 death-eligible murder cases. The study found that defendants of color in the military are twice as likely as white defendants to be sentenced to death. The researchers said the disparities against defendants of color “sharply distinguishes the military system from the typical civilian system” at a “magnitude that is rarely seen in court systems.” In typical studies on the civilian side, the likelihood of a death sentence increased when the victim in the underlying crime was white, and was even more pronounced if the defendant was a person of color. In U.S. military courts, however, discrimination based on the race of defendant - regardless of the race of victim - was more prominent. The researchers argued that limiting the military death penalty to the most aggravated and heinous crimes - e.g., murder of a commissioned officer or a premeditated attack on U.S. troops resulting in death - would reduce racial disparities. Grosso concluded, “If race is on the table, if it puts a thumb on the scale, that’s injustice.  These findings speak for themselves. They reflect how the military criminal justice system is operating, and it can do better.” Read the Study.

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