« Death and the SCOTUS docket | Main | Former congressman Ney gets 30 months »

January 19, 2007

An fitting MLK-week race reminder

This morning, I happened across the website of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama and its page on race in the state's criminal justice system.  I thought it fitting to close the MLK work week with a review of the racial skew in Alabama's "modern" system of criminal justice:

Although black people in Alabama constitute 26% of the total population, none of the 19 appellate court judges and none of the 42 elected District Attorneys in Alabama are black.  Nearly 63% of the Alabama prison population is black.

Although only 6% of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, over 60% of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white.  Each year in Alabama, nearly 65% of all murders involve black victims.  However, 80% of the prisoners currently awaiting execution in the state were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white.

Between 1975 and 2001, there were 23 executions in Alabama.  Nearly 70% percent of those executed were black. In 21 out of the 23 cases, black people were significantly underrepresented in the juries that condemned the accused to death.  In 14 of those cases, the jury was either all-white or had only one black juror although the counties where the cases were tried were between 33% to 47% black.

January 19, 2007 at 08:49 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e200d8350f67b069e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference An fitting MLK-week race reminder :

Comments

"Although only 6% of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, over 60% of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white."

Well, that's a nice sleight-of-hand. The comparison is useless unless you have either (1) the percentage of murders committed by black people that involve white victims, or (2) the percentage of prisoners on death row who are black.

"Each year in Alabama, nearly 65% of all murders involve black victims. However, 80% of the prisoners currently awaiting execution in the state were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white."

Are we to assume that insignificant percentage of murders involve both white and black victims?

"Between 1975 and 2001, there were 23 executions in Alabama. Nearly 70% percent of those executed were black. In 21 out of the 23 cases, black people were significantly underrepresented in the juries that condemned the accused to death. In 14 of those cases, the jury was either all-white or had only one black juror although the counties where the cases were tried were between 33% to 47% black."

1. What does "significantly underrepresented" mean?
2. With a sample size of 23, it makes little sense to say "almost 70%." Why not just say "16" (69.57% of 23)?
3. Should we care whether blacks were underrepresented on the jury in the 30+% of executions (7 of the 23) in which the defendant was not black?

I don't doubt that black people in Alabama have historically had sound reasons for believing that they'd be treated worse than white people by the criminal justice system, but these statistics are either shoddy or deliberately misleading, which I find disappointing. Does the Equal Justice Initiative fear that an honest portrayal of the situation would not provoke sufficient outrage?

Posted by: | Jan 19, 2007 10:16:47 AM

"Although only 6% of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, over 60% of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white."

What is curious is that this late in the day people still throw out raw numbers like this with the smug implication that this proves something. To reach any kind of meaningful conclusion as to whether racial discrimination is a major causal factor, you have to control for legitimate differences in the cases. Throwing out the raw number and assuming that racism is the primary or even sole reason implicitly assumes that the intraracial and crossracial groups of crimes are identical in all the factors that legitimately determine whether a case should be capital. They are not, and everyone who has studied the issue at all knows it.

It is true, in my opinion, that not enough black-on-black murders result in death sentences, but a close look at the numbers from well-done studies such as the Paternoster study in Maryland shows that local jurisdiction variations are the primary factor. There is more anti-death-penalty sentiment in the jurisdictions where most of these crimes occur. The voters elect prosecutors who seek the death penalty less often, and the juries impose it less often. That is local democracy and jury of the vicinage working as designed.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 19, 2007 11:28:58 AM

In addition to Mr. Scheidegger's point, I think that, although this may not be germane to Alabama, jurisdictions where there are a high number of black victims of murder (i.e., major urban areas), the particular jurisdiction may not have the resources to seek death on a per-murder basis as often as another jurisdiction with a lower murder rate. This would skew the numbers as well. In Maryland, for example, Baltimore County has (or had) a policy of seeking death in each murder where the death penalty was authorized by statute. Even if it were so inclined, Baltimore City could not have such a policy, as there simply are not the resources.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 19, 2007 11:36:40 AM

Jails are not balanced by gender, race, ethnicity and age and they feed people into prison so the prisons are not balanced
either. Persons who are convicted of murder are are mixture of hardened criminals and first time offenders and they should
provide the frame of reference for the population on death row. In other words the comparisons by gender, race, ethnicity and age
should be between persons convicted of murder and sentenced to LWOP and those sentenced to death.

People complain that jails are not balanced but I don't think they would want the police to raid a retirement home and jail all of the
pot smoking old biddies in order to achieve gender and age balance.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 20, 2007 10:42:12 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB