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September 15, 2020

DPIC releases big new report on "Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty"

Enduring-Injustice-CoverThe Death Penalty Information Center this morning released this big new report highlighting the history of racialized application of the ultimate punishment in the US.  This DPIC press release partially summarizes its coverage and context, and here are excerpts:

As social movements pressure policymakers to redress injustices in the criminal legal system and to institute reforms to make the process more fair and equitable, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) today released, “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.”  This report provides an in-depth look at the historical role that race has played in the death penalty and details the pervasive role racial discrimination continues to play in the administration of capital punishment today.

“The death penalty has been used to enforce racial hierarchies throughout United States history, beginning with the colonial period and continuing to this day,” said Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects and the report’s lead author.  “Its discriminatory presence as the apex punishment in the American legal system legitimizes all other harsh and discriminatory punishments.  That is why the death penalty must be part of any discussion of police reform, prosecutorial accountability, reversing mass incarceration, and the criminal legal system as a whole.”  Ms. Ndulue previously served as the NAACP’s Senior Director of Criminal Justice Programs and as a capital appeals lawyer.

“Racial disparities are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s editor.  “If you don’t understand the history — that the modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation — you won’t understand why. With the continuing police and white vigilante killings of Black citizens, it is even more important now to focus attention on the outsized role the death penalty plays as an agent and validator of racial discrimination.  What is broken or intentionally discriminatory in the criminal legal system is visibly worse in death-penalty cases. Exposing how the system discriminates in capital cases can shine an important light on law enforcement and judicial practices in vital need of abolition, restructuring, or reform.”

Racial bias persists today, as evidenced by cases with white victims being more likely to be investigated and capitally charged; systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death-penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color. The report provides compelling evidence of racial bias in the modern death penalty, including:

  • A 2015 meta-analysis of 30 studies showed that the killers of white people were more likely than the killers of Black people to face a capital prosecution.

  • A study in North Carolina showed that qualified Black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors. As of 2010, 20 percent of those on the state’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries.

  • Since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of an African-American victim.

  • A 2014 mock jury study of more than 500 Californians found that white jurors were more likely to sentence poor Latinx defendants to death than poor white defendants.

  • Exonerations of African Americans for murder convictions are 22 percent more likely to be linked to police misconduct.

September 15, 2020 at 09:24 AM | Permalink


An honest appraisal of a fact (that there are more blacks suffering the death penalty than is proportionate to their numbers) would be to compare: the details of their crime, the number of each race committing the crimes.

Otherwise you can't say the death penalty is racialized.

Posted by: restless94110 | Sep 16, 2020 7:37:06 AM

The difficulty in doing anything other than a raw numbers analysis is that every murder is different.

At this point -- as a trial attorney, appellate attorney, post-conviction attorney, or federal habeas attorney -- I have had some involvement in seven cases in which the jury recommended and the judge imposed death, four cases in which the death penalty was on the table (three in which the defendant pled to life without to avoid death and one in which the jury opted for life without parole) and, at least, ten cases in which the defendant was nominally death eligible but the decision was made not to pursue the death penalty.

Looking back at these cases, it would be difficult in each case to say what facts made the case a "death" case versus "lwop" case. As is somewhat the norm, most of the murders were not interracial. Only one of the death sentences occurred with a black defendant and a white victim, and the victim in that case was a police officer whom the defendant had a grudge against. My state has a proportionality review. In the old days (early 90s), the data was kept on punchcards, and my memory was that -- for any key fact -- you could almost always find a case in which the jury returned death and a case in which the jury returned lwop.

Posted by: tmm | Sep 16, 2020 10:43:41 AM

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