ANALYSIS: Research Supports Assertion that U.S. Death Penalty "Devalues Black Lives"

The Movement for Black Lives has called for abolishing the death penalty in the United States, asserting that capital punishment is a racist legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow that “devalues Black lives." A Spring 2018 article in the University of Chicago's philosophy journal Ethics, co-authored by Michael Cholbi, Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University and Alex Madva, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona, examines the philosophical underpinnings of those assertions and concludes that they are correct. In Black Lives Matter and the Call for Death Penalty Abolition, the authors examine "the two central contentions in the movement’s abolitionist stance"—that the death penalty as practiced in the United States wrongs Black communities as a whole, rather than just the individual Black defendants charged with capital murder or the particular Black victims whose murders were not capitally prosecuted; and that abolition of the death penalty in its entirety, rather than attempts at piecemeal reform, is "the most defensible remedy for this wrong." Cholbi and Madva review numerous 21st-century death-penalty studies and find that the data show two major classes of racial distinctions in American death-penalty practices: a White-victim preference in both prosecutorial choices to seek and jury verdicts to impose the death penalty and a sentencing bias against non-White defendants once a case has been designated as capital. Cholbi and Madva conclude that Black Americans are subject to a citizenship class that renders them vulnerable to both retributive and distributive injustice: retributive in the sense that individual Black capital defendants are empirically more likely to be subject to execution than defendants of other races and distributive in that that those who murder Black people are empirically less likely to be subject to execution than those who murder non-Black people. As a result of, in part, implicit racial biases that manifest at every level of the capital punishment system, Black capital defendants face the retributive injustice of being more likely to be sentenced to death than any other group. “Preexisting biases regarding blacks' proclivity toward and insusceptibility to violence that may otherwise remain dormant are galvanized when individuals are afforded the opportunity to render judgments regarding who ought to be executed for their crimes,” Cholbi and Madva write. In one shocking study cited by the pair, White respondents became more supportive of capital punishment when informed about the issue of racial bias in capital sentencing. Another study showed White members of a mock jury more likely to convict Black people and less likely to convict White people when informed that the maximum sentence possible was death as opposed to a life sentence. “Such results suggest that capital punishment is not just another arena infected with bias but instead represents a distinctive channel for racial discrimination” where anti-Black biases are "activate[d] and amplif[ied]." To not address the distinct and permeative nature of this discrimination, Cholbi and Madva write, “amounts to a form of societal or institutional recklessness.” Research supports the Movement for Black Lives' assertion that all Black people, not just individual Black capital defendants, are unjustly impacted by capital punishment’s systemic racial bias. Because the murder of a Black person is less statistically likely to result in a death sentence, Cholbi and Madva argue, “the law fails to penalize killings of blacks in a manner consistent with their having the equal protection of the law.” Given that the law “routinely punishes those who kill blacks less harshly than those who kill others, killing blacks becomes commensurably less risky (especially if the killer is white)." This distributive injustice “is one that all blacks face, not only those who actually are murdered.” The authors analyze attempted state-level death-penalty reforms and conclude that they “have had modest success at best” at eliminating racial bias, and therefore "abolishing the death penalty may itself be one among many necessary reforms for reducing broader racial disparities in criminal imprisonment." The task of ensuring that the lives of Black people are comparably protected and their killers are equally punished in the U.S. criminal justice system is impossible, they argue, without dismantling the capital punishment system for good. 

(Michael Cholbi and Alex Madva, Black Lives Matter and the Call for Death Penalty Abolition, vol. 128, Ethics, Issue no. 3, pp. 517–544, April 2018.) See Arbitrariness, Race, and Studies