Policy Issues

Race

Racial bias against defendants of color and in favor of white victims has a strong effect on who is capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and executed.

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

The Duane Buck Case: Race, Future Dangerousness, and the Death Penalty, with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Christina Swarns

Overview

The death penalty has long come under scrutiny for being racially biased. Earlier in the twentieth century when it was applied for the crime of rape, 89 percent of the executions involved black defendants, most for the rape of a white woman. In the modern era, when executions have been carried out exclusively for murder, 75 percent of the cases involve the murder of white victims, even though about half of all homicide victims in America are black.

A bias towards white-victim cases has been found in almost all of the sophisticated studies exploring this area over many years. These studies typically control for other variables in the cases studied, such as the number of victims or the brutality of the crime, and still found that defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death if they killed a white person.

The issue of racial disparities in the use of the death penalty was considered by the Supreme Court in 1987. In a close vote, the Court held that studies alone could not provide the required proof of racial discrimination in a particular defendant’s case. This decision appeared to close the door to broad challenges to the death penalty. However, the Court has found racial discrimination in the selection of the jury in individual capital cases.
 

At Issue

Today there is growing evidence that racial bias continues in society, particularly within the criminal justice system. The existence of implicit racial bias among some law enforcement officers, witnesses, jurors, and others allows harsher punishment of minorities, even without legal sanction or intention. Although these prejudices are hard to uproot, the unfair application of the death penalty could be halted by eliminating that sentencing option altogether.

What DPIC Offers 

DPIC tracks the race of those on death row, those who have been executed, the victims in the underlying crime, and many related statistics. It collects the sophisticated studies on racial bias that have been published over many years. Many of DPIC’s reports focus on aspects of this question and some are devoted entirely to the issue of race.

News & Developments


News

Jun 22, 2023

DPIC Releases New Report on How the History of Racial Violence and Discrimination Have Shaped the Death Penalty in Tennessee

The Death Penalty Information Center’s new report on race and the death penal­ty in Tennessee places the state’s death penal­ty sys­tem in his­tor­i­cal con­text, doc­u­ment­ing how racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and racial vio­lence con­tin­ue to influ­ence the admin­is­tra­tion of the death penal­ty. Doomed to Repeat: The Legacy of Race in Tennessee’s Contemporary Death Penalty, released June 22, 2023, notes that as the Tennessee Department of Correction devel­ops new lethal injec­tion pro­to­cols and pre­pares to resume exe­cu­tions, the state may find it use­ful to under­stand how Tennessee arrived at its cur­rent cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment system.

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News

May 22, 2024

Family of Youngest Person Executed in Pennsylvania History Sues County for His Wrongful Conviction and Execution 93 Years Ago

Susie Williams Carter was just a baby when her 16-year-old broth­er, Alexander McClay Williams, was con­vict­ed of mur­der and exe­cut­ed in Pennsylvania in 1931. Over 90 years lat­er, Ms. Carter, now 94, con­tin­ues her family’s deter­mi­na­tion to clear her brother’s name. In June 2022, a Delaware County, Pennsylvania judge agreed that law enforce­ment had dis­re­gard­ed evi­dence and coerced Mr. Williams into sign­ing mul­ti­ple false con­fes­sions. All charges against Mr. Williams were posthu­mous­ly dis­missed and then-Governor Tom Wolf apol­o­gized to his fam­i­ly, call­ing Mr. Williams’ exe­cu­tion an egre­gious mis­car­riage of justice.”…

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News

May 16, 2024

New DPIC Report Traces Ohio’s History of Racial Violence to the Modern Use of Capital Punishment in the State

On Tuesday, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report that con­nects Ohio’s racial his­to­ry to the mod­ern use of the death penal­ty in the state. Broken Promises: How a History of Racial Violence and Bias Shaped Ohio’s Death Penalty doc­u­ments how racial dis­crim­i­na­tion is the through­line that runs from the state’s found­ing to its appli­ca­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment today. 

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News

May 09, 2024

Articles of Interest: Los Angeles Times Editorial Board Says Systemic Racism in California Death Penalty Is Just One of Many Reasons for Abolition

In a May 7, 2024 edi­to­r­i­al, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board cites the deeply engrained racial dis­par­i­ties in the California death penal­ty sys­tem and how those facts led them to con­clude that even if the state could per­form pain­less and anx­i­ety-free exe­cu­tions and racial bias­es were elim­i­nat­ed, the death penal­ty would still be wrong.” Black defen­dants were 4.6 to 8.7 times more like­ly to be sen­tenced to death than oth­er defen­dants fac­ing sim­i­lar charges” the Board notes, and Latinos were 3.2 to 6.2 times more like­ly to be sentenced…

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News

Apr 30, 2024

Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Professor Elisabeth Semel on the Implications of Batson v. Kentucky and California’s Capital Punishment System

In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with Elisabeth Semel, Clinical Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley (pic­tured). Professor Semel joined Berkeley Law in 2001 as the first direc­tor of the school’s death penal­ty clin­ic and remains the clinic’s co-direc­tor, where stu­dents have rep­re­sent­ed indi­vid­u­als fac­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and writ­ten ami­cus briefs in death penal­ty cas­es before the United States Supreme Court. In recog­ni­tion of 38th year anniver­sary of the land­mark U.S. Supreme Court rul­ing in Batson v. Kentucky (1986), Professor…

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News

Apr 26, 2024

Federal Judge Orders Alameda County District Attorney to Review 35 Capital Cases Following Disclosure of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Jury Selection

On April 22, 2024, Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price announced that her office was ordered by a fed­er­al judge to review 35 death penal­ty con­vic­tions after the dis­clo­sure of evi­dence that sev­er­al pros­e­cu­tors inten­tion­al­ly exclud­ed Black and Jewish peo­ple from serv­ing on a cap­i­tal mur­der tri­al in 1995. In a press con­fer­ence, DA Price indi­cat­ed that her office dis­cov­ered the hand­writ­ten notes of for­mer pros­e­cu­tors that include dis­crim­i­na­to­ry jury selec­tion tac­tics, sug­gest­ing seri­ous mis­con­duct” per­me­at­ed the office in the 1990s. It’s not lim­it­ed to one or two pros­e­cu­tors, but…

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News

Apr 15, 2024

Wilbert Rideau, former Louisiana Death-Sentenced Prisoner, is Honored for Extraordinary Journalism During 44 Years at Angola Prison

On April 12, 2024, Long Island University cel­e­brat­ed the 2023 George Polk Awards in Journalism, hon­or­ing inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists and rec­og­niz­ing six­teen for­mer win­ners, includ­ing for­mer­ly death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Wilbert Rideau. Mr. Rideau spent forty-four years incar­cer­at­ed in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary where he cre­at­ed The Lifer, one of the first Black prison peri­od­i­cals. Sentenced to death in 1961 at age nine­teen, Mr. Rideau spent twelve years on death row before the United States Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Furman v. Georgia (1972), which struck down Louisiana’s cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment scheme. Mr. Rideau was…

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News

Apr 10, 2024

Lawsuit Filed at the California Supreme Court Alleges Racist Application of the Death Penalty Violates the State Constitution

On April 9, 2024, the California Office of the State Public Defender, along with sev­er­al civ­il rights groups, filed an extra­or­di­nary writ peti­tion at the California Supreme Court argu­ing that the state’s cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment sys­tem vio­lates the state’s Constitution because of its racial­ly biased imple­men­ta­tion. In 2021, the California Committee on Revision of the Penal Code con­firmed that racial bias is entrenched in the state’s death penal­ty sys­tem. The California Constitution does not per­mit a two-tiered sys­tem of jus­tice where the most severe sen­tence the state has on its books…

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News

Apr 09, 2024

Santa Clara, California County District Attorney Requests Resentencing for County’s Entire Death Row

On April 5, 2024, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen filed peti­tions ask­ing the coun­ty supe­ri­or court to resen­tence 15 death-sen­tenced men from his coun­ty to sen­tences of life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty for parole. These peti­tions were filed four years after DA Rosen announced his office would no longer seek the death penal­ty, a deci­sion part­ly in response to nation­wide calls for crim­i­nal legal reform fol­low­ing the mur­der of George Floyd. At the time, DA Rosen said that Mr. Floyd’s death had changed our coun­try and our…

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News

Mar 28, 2024

OP-ED: Black Woman Denied Opportunity to Serve as a Juror in Georgia Capital Trial Cites Concerns About Racial Bias

In a March 26, 2024, op-ed pub­lished in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Patricia McTier, a Georgia nurse, recounts her expe­ri­ence being removed from a jury pool in 1998 for what she calls a ques­tion­able rea­son” relat­ed to her race. Born and raised in Appling County, Georgia, Ms. McTier grew up in the Jim Crow era and writes that she enter[ed] adult­hood dur­ing a time of great social change,” where she grew to cher­ish our American sys­tem of jus­tice and the Constitution that endows all of us with equal rights.” In September…

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News

Mar 14, 2024

North Carolina Racial Justice Act Hearing Concludes in Hasson Bacote Case

On Friday, March 8, 2024 a Johnston County tri­al court con­clud­ed a his­toric hear­ing regard­ing the claims of Hasson Bacote, a death-sen­tenced pris­on­er in North Carolina, that racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in jury selec­tion played a role in his 2009 cap­i­tal sen­tenc­ing. The case, which is being reviewed pur­suant to North Carolina’s 2009 Racial Justice Act (RJA), could have impli­ca­tions for more than 100 oth­er death row pris­on­ers who have pend­ing claims under the Act.

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