by Alexander Adams

I. Introduction

This is the strongest argument against the death penalty, or one of them, as if it is correct they can convince an unelected supreme court to subdue the death penalty. Anti-Death penalty groups such as the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) try to capitalize on these arguments all the time. I think this is the vilest strategy of the abolitionist crowd. However, their claims are all false, and as usual the abolitionist crowd is good at ignoring facts.

II. Facts

Here are some background facts that are not trying to make a point. 38-45% of those executed are black (depending on the data set), 56% are white. Blacks are executed under the rate they should be about 20% (in other words, 38% should be higher). Blacks are half of the murders, 50%, and are only 12% of the population. Further, the southern states should be those most racist, correct? Sorry, in the northeast 59% of those on death row where black and the number is only 41% in southern states [1].

III. So, what do the facts say?

A look at this data refutes the notion of death penalty racism. The logic behind the DP being racist is all based on history. They argue southern states use the DP as a tool to promote their old hatred for blacks. However, if the south is using it for racist purposes, then why is their death row population predominately white when in the northeast 59% of those on death row are black? For a theory to be valid, it must predict phenomena. Lets give an example. Say legalizing books should lower crime in the lower age groups because instead of fighting they are reading. If crime first drops with the older population, this disproves the theory, as its very logic is inaccurate. It applies to the racism claims too.

Now, historically I have to admit the death penalty was racist (however, this was before Furman). For the death penalty to be racist, studies would have to demonstrate first that the juries acknowledge the defendant is black and then use that as a reason (or one of them). However, studies after Furman (the only sampling you can use because that is the mark of the “modern era” of the death penalty”) have rarely come to that conclusion, and when they do they receive a lot of academic criticism. Studies then tried to change methodology. Studies later, and the newer ones argue, 40% of those death penalty cases involve blacks, and they are only 12% of the population, this is evidence of discrimination. Here is my question: is it? Not really. Separate analyses show these basic comparisons are weak and cannot be relied upon to make a case for racial discrimination. The problem with studies that argue its racially biased is simple: they fail to control for many of the legal factors. Jon Sorensen and Rocky Pilgrim decided to control for these factors. When they did, the racial effect disappeared [2]. 

Other studies by Baldus have argued the death penalty is very racist, however court cases (after listening to experts) usually conclude with the dissent. They argue the data was sparse, biased, questionable, and not statistically significant [1].

Interestingly enough, Sorensen’s study shows the DP is slightly generous to the African Americans. It shows they are half as likely to receive a death penalty, he also finds Hispanics get sentenced to death at lesser rates then whites. Sorensen finds other studies agree with his case. When studies look at the fact blacks commit 50% of the murders, they all note no bias exists. In other words, execution of blacks can reach 50% (in a national average, its currently 40%) for it to be unfair. So unless they prove blacks are on average over 50% of those committing homicide, they have no case.

Note: Blacks are predisposed to crime, but this does not mean we should discriminate them or give them flak. And I hope my point above does not sound racist, my best friend is black.

As Sorensen notes:

“Studies that use the proportion of blacks involved in murder as the baseline *note this is the only accurate way you can do it* often conclude that there is no discrimination against black defendants … [E]vidence of racial disparity has all but disappeared.”[2]

IV. Maryland study and the RAND study

This is the study I often see cited in debates. Studies by RAND agreed with only half of the abolitionist claim. They argued the DP was more common if the victim was white and the defendant as black. However in follow-up studies when the controlled for the heinous factor (how bad the crime was and how the jury reacted) the results of these biases disappeared. The study concluded race was NOT a deciding factor in the death penalty case, however the characteristics of the crime do. They had many different methodologies tried to see what the results would be: all argued no racial discrimination [3].

Now, in Maryland Governor Glendening passed a moratorium on the death penalty as a death penalty study, still often cited, argued the DP was racist. However, newer studies discredit these claims. The results of that study where found not accurate, and did not hold up to scrutiny. The new analysis concluded, “For both capital charges and death sentences, race either played no role or a small role that is very difficult to specify. In short, it is very difficult to find convincing evidence for racial effects in the Maryland data and if there are any, they may not be additive.”[4] He even further noted, “cases with a black defendant and white victim or ‘other’ racial combination are less likely to have a death sentence”[4]

V. Conclusion

There is little or no role in death penalty sentencing, which involves race. The racist claim is a myth and the existing evidence is flawed one factor in the data showing blacks commit 50% of the murders. The RAND study easily debunks the notion of the death penalty being racist. It is the attributes of the crime, not the race, which controls sentencing. Abolitionists have no data on their side except a correlation, and the correlation, as said, is debunked when you factor in the blacks murder more effect. And remember, correlation does not equal causation. And I have cleanly shown there is no correlation nor causation effect. To conclude I will bring this quote again:

“For both capital charges and death sentences, race either played no role or a small role that is very difficult to specify. In short, it is very difficult to find convincing evidence for racial effects in the Maryland data and if there are any, they may not be additive.”[4]

[1] Sharp, Dudley. “Death Penalty and Sentencing information”, Justice for All, (October 1997)

[2] Jonathan R. Sorensen, and Rocky LeAnn Pilgrim. “Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas during the Modern Era.” Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2006. Print.

[3] Stephen P. Klein, Richard A. Berk, Laura J. Hickman, eds. “Race and the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty in Federal Cases” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, (June 2006).

[4] Richard Berk, Azusa Li, and Laura J. Hickman, “Statistical Difficulties in Determining the Role of Race in Capital Cases: A Re-analysis of Data from the State of Maryland,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Vol. 21, No. 4 (December, 2005), 365-390.

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