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August 9, 2010

"Race Factor in Death Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary atThe Huffington Post by Carol Turowski, who serves as Co-Director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law.  Here are snippets from the piece that, I suspect, will get some pro-death-penalty readers going:

The release last week of a study conducted by two law professors at Michigan State University College of Law has reignited the debate over the question of what role race plays in North Carolina when defendants are facing a death sentence. After examining 5,800 cases in North Carolina that were eligible for the death penalty from 1990 through 2009, the study concluded that a defendant in North Carolina is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white. Moreover, the study found that more than 40 percent of defendants on North Carolina's death row were sentenced to death by a jury that was either all-white or included only one person of color. It was also determined by researchers that, during the jury selection process, prosecutors statewide struck qualified blacks from the potential jury pool at more than twice the rate of whites....

The study underscores the importance of the one-year old N.C. Racial Justice Act which allows inmates the chance to challenge their death sentences if they believe race was a factor in their sentencing. This ground-breaking legislation was adopted to counteract the racial disparities in death sentencing which have been observed by capital defenders and death penalty litigation organizations for decades.... A similar study conducted by a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder last month concluded that someone accused of killing a white person in North Carolina was nearly three times as likely to get the death penalty as someone accused of killing a black person.

While the impact of these studies on the death row inmates' cases still remains to be seen, the conclusions reached by the researchers raises serious concerns about how we consciously or unconsciously view an individual's race in determining whether they should be given the most serious penalty our criminal justice system has to offer.  If we have any doubts about whether race played a role in the practices of a prosecutor or in the determination of a jury, then it should be axiomatic that the sentence of death should be commuted to life. A racially conscious society must refuse to submit to the rhetoric of "punishment must fit the crime" and seek a higher moral ground that says a potentially racially-biased death sentence is intolerable in North Carolina.

The real issue going forward is whether North Carolina is willing to be a trailblazer in setting the example for other states who have equal concerns over whether the color of a person's skin could have contributed to their being considered for death or was a factor in their receiving a death sentence; it is our choice to make.

I have emphasized two particular sentences in this commentary because both the phrasing and claims seem noteworthy and worthy of debate.  

August 9, 2010 at 07:48 PM | Permalink


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Did they deal with the cases on a county by county basis? It doesn't look like it. Thus, the study isn't even worth the paper it is printed on. If an urban county, where blacks tend to be overrepresented when it comes to victims, decides to seek death less often on a per capita basis, then that is going to skew the results statewide. This is as obvious as the nose on anyone's face. That this fact is ignored says more about the studiers than it does about capital punishment. Seems these people have an agenda.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 9, 2010 9:49:58 PM

I am experiencing the exasperation that others claim to feel about the repetitiveness of my postings. I have to protest the relentless repetitiveness of this argument by Prof. Berman.

If a black is murdered, the likelihood of the death penalty is less. That is an advantage to the defendant stemming from race, not a detriment. Because most murders are intra-racial, the biggest beneficiaries of the devaluation of the value of black murder victims are black murderers. The black murderer has been granted a racial privilege.

One may argue about quotas, demanding that more black murderers get the death penalty. This is not a racial discrimination argument against the death penalty, except to say, more death penalty is needed to protect devalued black murder victims. The devaluation of black crime victims is behind the herding of all crime into black neighborhoods, with blacks being more likely to be victims of all crimes.

These statistics argue for more death penalty. Yet the lawyer is brazenly calling for a moratorium like calling red something that is blue, as if we are blind.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 9, 2010 11:42:57 PM

How does suggesting a study is fodder for debate constitute making an argument?

Posted by: John K | Aug 10, 2010 10:49:35 AM

"I am experiencing the exasperation that others claim to feel about the repetitiveness of my postings. I have to protest the relentless repetitiveness of this argument by Prof. Berman."

I think a fact of some note that is relevant to this point is that this is actually Berman's blog. Presumably, no one is putting a gun to your head and forcing you to read it.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 10, 2010 11:02:16 AM

Guy: The criticism is for the benefit not the detriment of Prof. Berman. The argument is a good one for increasing the death penalty. It is a bad one for decreasing the death penalty. Yet, the lawyer is brazenly using it to ask for a moratorium.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 10, 2010 12:53:13 PM

Yes, they did look at it County-by-County and, surprisingly, nearly every county showed a similar bias. There were a few good ones, but generally, the practice was uniform across the state, with some outliers of extreme bias.

Posted by: Durham in Durham | Aug 11, 2010 11:21:45 AM

The criticism is for the benefit

Posted by: ecco shoes | Sep 10, 2010 11:17:27 PM

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