STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military’s death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984. Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: “There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim,” the authors said. “However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims.” A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military’s death row. The editorial concluded, “The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty.”

The study’s authors suggested that racial bias could be discouraged by reserving the military death penalty for murders in which there is significant military interest. “Such a limitation of death eligibility under military law would also simplify the costs and complexity of the current system without impairing the charging and sentencing authorities’ ability to protect vital military interests through the use of the death penalty.” The study, “Racial Discrimination in the Administration of the Death Penalty: The Experience of the United States Armed Forces (1984–2005),” was authored by David Baldus (a noted death penalty researcher who died in June), George Woodworth, Catherine Grosso, and Richard Newell.

(M. Taylor, “Study: Racial disparities taint military’s use of death penalty,” McClatchy Newspapers, Aug. 28, 2011; “The Military and the Death Penalty,” New York Times, Sept. 1, 2011, editorial). See also: Race and U.S. Military