A new article by Cornell Law School Professor John Blume (pictured) and Lindsey Vann of Justice 360 analyzes South Carolina’s experience with the death penalty over the last 40 years and argues that capital punishment in the Palmetto State continues to exhibit the same arbitrary and discriminatory features that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the death penalty in 1972. Using Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in Glossip v. Gross as a guide, Blume and Vann point to unreliability, arbitrariness, and the declining imposition of capital punishment as evidence that the death penalty is cruel and unusual as applied in South Carolina. Fewer than a quarter (24%) of the state’s death sentences imposed since 1976 have resulted in execution, while more than half (52%) have been overturned. Following reversal, more than 90% of the former death cases (47% of all South Carolina death sentences) were subsequently resolved with a non-capital sentence or acquittal. Three death row inmates have been fully exonerated, and three more have been released based upon evidence suggesting innocence. Blume and Vann argue that race and gender of victim effects demonstrate the arbitrariness of the state’s death penalty. While African Americans are victims of 59% of the state’s homicides, 81% of South Carolina death sentences have been imposed for the murder of a white victim. Although white females constitute only 11% of murder victims, their cases account for 42% of South Carolina death sentences. By contrast, 48% of South Carolina murder victims are black males, but these cases account for only 8% of the state’s death sentences. The authors also note that South Carolina has experienced a dramatic decline in death sentences that cannot be explained by a change in murder rates. In 1986, the state’s peak death sentencing year, 4.5 death sentences were imposed for every 100 murders in the state. Since 2008, the rate has been one-tenth that, with 0.45 death sentences per 100 murders. They conclude, “In Gregg, the Court allowed capital punishment to resume based on its confidence that post-Furman improvements to state death penalty systems had eliminated that arbitrariness. That confidence, however, was misplaced. The death penalty in South Carolina is still arbitrary after all these years.”

(J. Blume and L. Vann, “Forty Years of Death: The Past, Present, and Future of the Death Penalty in South Carolina (Or Still Arbitrary after All These Years),” Cornell Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, February 19, 2016.) See Studies, Arbitrariness and Race.