A new report has linked the modern-day death penalty with slavery, lynching and segregation.
The Death Penalty Information Center released, “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty” to provide an in-depth look at the historical role that race has played in the death penalty.
The Center says the findings detail the pervasive role racial discrimination continues to play in the administration of capital punishment today.
“The death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies throughout United States history, beginning with the colonial period and continuing to this day,” said Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects and the report’s lead author. “Its discriminatory presence as the apex punishment in the American legal system legitimizes all other harsh and discriminatory punishments. That is why the death penalty must be part of any discussion of police reform, prosecutorial accountability, reversing mass incarceration, and the criminal legal system as a whole.”
The report notes that during slavery capital punishment was a tool for controlling Black populations and curbing rebellions.
After the Civil War, public officials promised legal executions as a means of discouraging lynchings.
As lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, executions began to take their place in circumstances that earlier would have drawn a lynch mob.
Across the South, African American men were condemned and executed for alleged rape or attempted rape of white women or girls and other like accusations.
Authors of the report say racial bias persists as evidenced by cases with white victims being more likely to be investigated and capitally charged; systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death-penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color.
They add that since executions resumed in 1977, 295 Black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a Black victim.
A 2015 meta-analysis of 30 studies showed that the killers of white people were more likely than the killers of Black people to face capital prosecution.
There are currently 57 people on federal death row, 34 of which are people of color, including 26 Black men. The center says some were convicted and condemned by all-white juries, an ongoing issue they say plays a role in driving death sentences for Black defendants.
The report points to death penalty cases like Abu-Ali Abdur’ Rahman’s in Davidson County, Tenn., where the District Attorney General Glenn Funk conceded that the trial had been infected by overt racial bias.
The Center says Abdur’Rahman had long argued that the prosecutor struck two Black potential jurors based on racial stereotypes. The trial court agreed to a reduced sentence, but the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office is currently appealing.
They also note the Oklahoma case of Julius Jones, who was convicted and sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury for killing a white businessman.
His case was riddled with racial discrimination, including an officer using a racial slur during his arrest, prosecutors striking every Black potential juror but one, and a juror who used the n-word to describe Jones, according to the center.
His petition for clemency is currently pending.
“Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, said.
“With the continuing police and white vigilante killings of Black citizens, it is even more important now to focus attention on the outsized role the death penalty plays as an agent and validator of racial discrimination.”
“What is broken or intentionally discriminatory in the criminal legal system is visibly worse in death-penalty cases. Exposing how the system discriminates in capital cases can shine an important light on law enforcement and judicial practices in vital need of abolition, restructuring, or reform.”