Racial Disparity in the Military Death Penalty

There is racial disparity on the military’s death row. Of those on the military death row today, five are African-American, one is a Pacific Islander, and only one is Caucasian. Whereas nationwide, about half of the 3,600 death row inmates are members of a minority, the military has an 86 percent minority death row population.

According to Dwight Sullivan, “While the number of servicemembers under death sentence is fairly small, the racial disparity in military death penalty cases has been distressingly persistent. During World War II, African-Americans accounted for less than 10 percent of the Army. Yet, of the 70 soldiers executed in Europe during the war, 55 [79%] were African-American. After President Truman ordered an end to the armed forces’ segregation in 1948, this racial disparity actually increased. The military carried out 12 executions from 1954 until the most recent one in 1961. Eleven of the 12 executed servicemembers were African-American.”

“The death sentences adjudged since 1961 have continued to fall disproportionately on minority servicemembers. In 1983, when the Court of Military Appeals issued its Matthews opinion invalidating the military death penalty, seven servicemembers were on death row. Five were African-American, one was Latino, and one was Caucasian.”

In addition to the racial disparity among death row inmates, there is also racial disparity among victims. Each time an African American has been sent to the military’s death row, the case has involved a white victim. (R. Serrano, “A Grim Life on Military Death Row,” Los Angeles Times, 7/12/94). For more information about racial disparities, see DPIC’s Race page.