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December 20, 2005

Sobering realities of race and the death penalty

Though the latest hot topics for debate over capital punishment concerns clemency and deterrence, the debates over race and the death penalty never go out of style.  And the latest hot spot for these issues is Maryland, as evidenced by this Washington Post op-ed by former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and this Baltimore Sun op-ed by Ray Paternoster who was the senior author of the 2003 Maryland Death Penalty Study (which can be accessed in full here).

Both op-eds are very interesting reads.  In his piece, Glendening laments that the current state administration is failing to face up to "serious questions about the impact of race and geography in capital sentencing" in Maryland.  In his piece, Paternoster reiterates the findings from his study that "race and geography were factors in the decisions that lead to death row," and he expresses disappointment that his study "has only fueled misunderstanding and polarized both sides of the debate about capital punishment in Maryland."  (A discussion of similar issues can also be found to the north in this op-ed arguing that "New Jersey's capital punishment law has and continues to be applied in an absolutely inconsistent, arbitrary and irrational manner.")

Paternoster's commentary especially reinforce my sad and somewhat cynical conclusion that no one genuinely cares about the problems of racial disparity and discrimination in the application of the death penalty.  It often seems that death penalty opponents raise race issues simply as another argument to support the abolition of capital punishment.  Meanwhile, death penalty proponents often refuse to grapple seriously with race issues for fear that, practically speaking, any real effort to stamp out racial disparity in the administration of capital punishment could stamp out capital punishment altogether.

For a good overview of a number of race issues in the application of the death penalty, the materials here and here at the DPIC are quite informative (and depressing).  The number I always find most remarkable and telling is that, of the 1000+ executions in the modern death penalty era, only 12 executions have been for crimes in which a white defendant murdered a black victim (roughly 1% of all executions), whereas 208 executions have been for crimes in which a black defendant murdered a white victim (roughly 20% of all executions).

December 20, 2005 at 11:46 PM | Permalink


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To make the statistic meaningful, we need to know the percentage of murders by whites of blacks and blacks of whites. (It wouldn't hurt to know the statistics of white/white and black/black, as well as murders involving Hispanics, Asians, and other races/ethnicities.) Anyone know of the source(s) for this key information?

Posted by: Mark | Dec 21, 2005 10:31:41 AM

Is there any difference between racial disparities in handing down the death penalty and racial disparities in handing down sentences generally? Is the death penalty a special case, or is this just part of a larger problem?

Posted by: Steve Podraza | Dec 21, 2005 12:25:51 PM

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