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December 6, 2010

Debating race and the death penalty in the popular press

Thanks to How Appealing, I just came across this notable op-ed by Jeff Jacoby from yesterday's Boston Globe.  The piece is headlined, "A justice's blind eye to the truth: John Paul Stevens's argument that capital punishment is racist is contradicted by facts," and it spotlights a section of Charles Lane's interesting new book on the death penalty.  Here is how this op-ed closes:

It is a passionately held article of faith among death-penalty opponents that capital punishment is racially unjust.  But the facts stubbornly say otherwise.  Ever since the Supreme Court compelled the states to rewrite their death penalty statutes in the 1970s, white murderers have been more likely than black murderers to be sentenced to death, and more likely to actually be executed.  Though blacks commit approximately half of all murders in the United States, they accounted for only 390, or 35 percent, of the 1,136 murderers executed from 1977 through 2008.  (Whites made up 57 percent; the rest were Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian.)

The race-of-the-victim claim that so appalls Stevens collapses under scrutiny.  The Washington Post’s Charles Lane — an admirer of Stevens, as it happens — shows why in a new book of his own.  Because the vast majority of the murderers who kill blacks are black themselves, he writes in "Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself," the fact that the murder of a black victim is less likely to be punished with death is another way of saying that fewer blacks are put to death by the state.  That reflects not racism, but racial progress.

It isn’t because prosecutors place a lower value on black life that they are more reluctant to seek the death penalty for black-on-black homicide, Lane explains.  It is because prosecutors don’t press for a punishment of death unless they think the jury can be convinced to support it.  And in the largely black communities where most black-on-black crime is committed, "persuading a jury to sentence a defendant to death is relatively difficult." Similarly, "in jurisdictions where elected prosecutors must appeal to black voters, prosecutors are that much less likely to support capital punishment."

In short, says Lane, far from harking back to the awful era when legally powerless black Americans were murdered by lynch mobs, the race-of-the-victim disparity today shows how blacks have been empowered.  Before the Civil Rights revolution, most blacks couldn’t vote or serve on juries.  "Now that they do, they appear to be using this power to limit capital punishment in the cases closest to them."

Reasonable people have disagreed about the death penalty for a long time, but there is nothing reasonable about smearing the modern capital-justice system as inherently racist. Stevens changed his mind on the death penalty, but most Americans continue to regard it as a legitimate tool of justice.  To imply that there is a whiff of the lynch mob in their view may make a good story for the Sunday paper.  It doesn’t make a convincing argument.

December 6, 2010 at 09:36 AM | Permalink


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Jeff Jacoby is wrong as always

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 6, 2010 10:40:53 AM

I notice that not a single abolitionist has so much as attempted an analytical rebuttal to Jacoby's argument.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 7, 2010 2:27:27 PM

it's a waste of time

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 7, 2010 2:53:32 PM

claudio, how do you say "shut up, he explained" in italian?

Posted by: federalist | Dec 7, 2010 7:27:11 PM

I played this game often, but for me, our creativity never stretched past trying to figure out what animal we would be. I'm still un-decided on the matter.

Posted by: viagra online | Dec 7, 2010 8:19:01 PM

claudio --

What's a waste of time is trying to reason with those who dismiss as nothing the mind-boggling suffering of the Petit family as they were raped, tortured and murdered.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 7, 2010 10:09:07 PM

If you did not red
Equal Justice and the Death Penalty, Boston, Northeastern University Press 1989
You can get a look here
and here
AMR 51/046/2003 Death by discrimination - the continuing role of race in capital cases

At any rate you must know that:
80% of the victims of the executed were white
of the 15 white persons executed for the killing of a black none from Texas

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 8, 2010 4:27:15 AM

claudio --

Darn. I forgot for a moment that the three members of the Petit family who were murdered -- after a few hours of, ummmm, unpleasant stuff beforehand -- were white, and therefore don't count!

I just don't know how I could have been so absent-minded!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 8, 2010 4:14:22 PM

what about stop writing stupid things ???????

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 8, 2010 4:29:31 PM

claudio --

The point, which evidently eludes you, is that the murder of white people cannot be brushed off simply because most murder victims at the root of capital cases are white. The Petit murders, which you continue to refuse to discuss (now why is that?) fully merited the DP, as a unanimous jury found. The race of the victims, in that case and almost all others, is irrelevant to the grotequeness of the crime or the savagery of the killer.

If your point is that not enough killers of blacks are sentenced to death, you might well be right. But since I think each case (black victim or white victim) should be evaluated on its own individual facts, I can't say for sure.

If your point is just to be the eight zillionth sanctimonious left winger shouting "Amerika stinks!", have at it. Why stop now?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2010 11:39:06 AM

You are completely out of order.
I am against death penalty because it kills people.
I am not interested in colour of victims and killers.
You give a bigger price to white, high status victims.
You search vendetta for them.
Data from USA are clear: the American death penalty is an immoral, indecent, illegal, expensive, stupid, cruel, dangerous, racist, classist, arbitrary, capricious, inconsistent, not working violation of human rights

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 9, 2010 12:15:47 PM

claudio --

You're a hoot, buddy, but I'll indulge you once again.

"You are completely out of order."

As if you decided who is "in order" on a blog you don't own. Where DID you get your ego?

"I am against death penalty because it kills people."

So does self defense. I suppose you're against that too?

"I am not interested in colour of victims and killers."

Oh no, you abbies aren't interested in all this race-mongering -- except when you are, which is a good deal of the time. That would include you personally, which you give away exactly five lines down in your post, when you say the DP is "racist."

It would be useful to you to be able to remember what you write for more than five lines.

"You give a bigger price to white, high status victims."

Quote one post I have written here or anywhere in which I have stated or remotely implied that white, high status victims count more than others. Just one.

"Data from USA are clear: the American death penalty is an immoral, indecent, illegal, expensive, stupid, cruel, dangerous, racist, classist, arbitrary, capricious, inconsistent, not working violation of human rights."

Then you should have an easy time winning your case. But you don't. Not with the public and not in court. Not in the rest of the world either. It's not just the USA. It's the Orient, the Subcontinent, the Middle East, the Carribean, and most of Africa (which I suppose is "racist" too, right?).

Now you were going to discuss the Petit case? Oh, right, it's "out of order" to take note of your contempt for the victims of that (to anyone else) atrocity.

Claudio, your style of "argument" is one of the better things retentionism has going for it. Conclusory statements combined with condescension.

Keep it up. Please!!!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2010 5:51:01 PM

Dear Mr Otis,
I spent 40 years in the field of human rights and I do not think you have something to teach me.
I worked for 20 years helping soviet dissidents (I had my graduation thesis about them).
I wrote about theory of human rights and now I have an abolitionist group (our main concern is Japan).
American justice is interesting in many ways:
you are the last western country with death penalty (say nothing about slavery, lynching and racial discrimination),
your justice is incredibly messy and your death penalty is racist, stupid, classist, etc.
Death penalty is the same everywhere, but in America it is manifest.
My country is full of persons who say we must follow your example, but they know only what they see at television.
The Petit Affair is the clear demonstration that capital punishment is NOT a deterrent and you will spend millions dollars for a revenge.
Dear Mr Otis, I am winning and you are the loser.

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Dec 10, 2010 11:00:36 AM

I lost my class ring...but its fine, I am about to get my collegiate ring just.

Posted by: charms thomas sabo | Dec 16, 2010 3:04:23 AM

The ring didn't mean a thing ????.???? n honor of basketball wives nationwide xoxo.

Posted by: charms thomas sabo | Dec 16, 2010 3:17:41 AM

Nice post.

Posted by: Steve Smith | Dec 5, 2016 5:30:08 AM

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