RACE: April 22 Marks 25th Anniversary of Landmark Decision in McCleskey v. Kemp

April 22 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Court rejected (5-4) a claim of racial bias based on a sophisticated statistical study of the death penalty in Georgia. Warren McCleskey, an African-American death row inmate convicted of killing a white police officer, presented the Court with analysis showing that defendants charged with killing white victims had odds of receiving a death sentence that were 4.3 times higher than defendants charged with killing black victims. McCleskey argued that his death sentence was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held, however, that the defendant had to show he was personally discriminated against in the course of the prosecution, and merely showing a disturbing pattern of racial disparities in Georgia over a long period of time was not sufficient to prove racial bias in his case. McCleskey also argued that when race is a factor in selecting who will die, the death penalty is unconstitutional under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, but the Court decided the study offered was insufficient to prove that the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary manner.

The Court’s decision has stood in the way of any similar claims by capital defendants for 25 years. Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote the majority opinion, later said he regretted his vote in this case. For more information on McCleskey v. Kemp, visit mccleskeyvkemp.com, a website assembled by a variety of organizations wishing to underscore the implications of this decision. The website includes information from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and their prior symposium about this case.

A decision challenging racial bias in the death penalty in North Carolina, employing the state’s new Racial Justice Act, is expected on April 20 from a trial court (State v. Robinson).

(DPIC posted, April 17, 2012). See McCleskeyvKemp.com. See also Race and U.S. Supreme Court.