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Essay/Term paper: The effects of race on sentencing in capital punishment cases

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities Essays

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Throughout history, minorities have been ill-represented in
the criminal justice system, particularly in cases where the
possible outcome is death. In early America, blacks were lynched
for the slightest violation of informal laws and many of these
killings occured without any type of due process. As the judicial
system has matured, minorities have found better representation but
it is not completely unbiased. In the past twenty years strict
controls have been implemented but the system still has symptoms of
racial bias. This racial bias was first recognized by the Supreme
Court in Fruman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). The Supreme
Court Justices decide that the death penalty was being handed out
unfairly and according to Gest (1996) the Supreme Court felt the
death penalty was being imposed "freakishly" and "wantonly" and
"most often on blacks." Several years later in Gregg v. Georgia,
428 U.S. 153 (1976), the Supreme Court decided, with efficient
controls, the death penalty could be used constitutionally. Yet,
even with these various controls, the system does not effectively
eliminate racial bias.
Since Gregg v. Georgia the total population of all 36 death
rows has grown as has the number of judicial controls used by each
state. Of the 3,122 people on death row 41% are black while 48%
are white (Gest, 1996, 41). This figure may be acceptable at first
glance but one must take into account the fact that only 12% of the
U.S. population is black (Smolowe, 1991, 68). Carolyn Snurkowski
of the Florida attorney generals office believes that the
disproportionate number of blacks on death row can be explained by
the fact that, "Many black murders result from barroom brawls that
wouldn"t call for the death penalty, but many white murders occur
on top of another offense, such as robbery" (As cited in Gest,
1986, 25). This may be true but the Washington Legal Foundation
offers their own explanation by arguing that "blacks are arrested
for murder at a higher rate than are whites. When arrest totals
are factored in , "the probability of a white murderer ending up on
death row is 33 percent greater than in the case of a black
murderer" (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25).
According to Professor Steven Goldstein of Florida State
University, "There are so many discretionary stages: whether the
prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, whether the jury
recommends it, whether the judge gives it" (As cited in Smolowe,
1991, 68). It is in these discretionary stages that racial biases
can infect the system of dealing out death sentences. Smolowe
(1991) shows this infection by giving examples of two cases decided
in February of 1991, both in Columbus. The first example is a
white defendant named James Robert Caldwell who was convicted of
stabbing his 10 year old son repeatedly and raping and killing his
12 year old daughter. The second example is of a black man, Jerry
Walker, convicted of killing a 22-year-old white man while robbing
a convenience-store. Caldwell"s trial lasted three times as long
as Walker"s and Caldwell received a life sentence while Walker
received a death sentence. In these examples, it is believed that
not only the race of the victims, but also the value of the
victims, biased the sentencing decisions. The 22-year-old man
killed by Walker was the son of a Army commander at Fort Benning
while Caldwell"s victims were not influential in the community. In
examples such as these, it becomes evident that racial bias, in any
or all of the discretionary stages, becomes racial injustice in the
end. Smolowe (1991) also makes the point that Columbus is not
alone: "A 1990 report prepared by the government"s General
Accounting Office found "a pattern of evidence indicating racial
disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death
In an article by Seligman (1994), Professor Joseph Katz of
Georgia State "and other scholars have made a separate point about
bias claims based on the "devalued lives" of murder victims."
Seligman also asserts that those claiming bias believe that it is
in the race of the victim and not the race of the defendant, and
because the lives of blacks have been "devalued," people who murder
blacks are less likely to receive death sentences than those who
murder whites" (Seligman, 1994, 113). An Iowa Law Professor, David
Baldus, also found that "juries put a premium on the lives of
victims" (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80). In a study of more than
2,000 Georgia murder cases, Baldus found that "those who killed
whites were 4.3 times as likely to receive the death penalty as
those who killed blacks. And blacks who killed whites were most
likely of all to be condemned to die" (As cited in Lacayo, 1987,
80). According to Gest (1996), of those executed since the
reinstatement of the death penalty, 80% have murdered whites, while
only 12% of those executed in the same time period have had black
victims. These figures show an obvious trend of racial bias
against those who murdered whites. Could these disparities be
because, as sociologist Michael Radelet put it, "Prosecutors are
political animals, they are influenced by community outrage, which
is subtly influenced by race," or is it because "it is built into
the system that those in the predominant race will be more
concerned about crime victims of their own race," as stated by
Welsh White of the University of Pittsburgh Law School (As cited in
Gest, 1986, 25).
Because of the immense possibility of discrimination in
sentencing in capital punishment cases, each stage of prosecution
must be controlled as much as possible. Although these
offenders are the worst the criminal justice system has to offer,
prosecutors must be encouraged to consider the crime and not the
race of the victim or offender and the judge must attempt to
exclude the same racial issue when deciding the punishment. I
believe Justice Brennan said it best when he wrote the dissenting
opinion in a capital punishment appeal. He wrote, "It is tempting
to pretend that minorities on death row share a fate in no way
connected to our own, that our treatment of them sounds no echoes
beyond the chambers in which they die. Such an illusion is
ultimately corrosive, for the reverberations of injustice are not
so easily confined" (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80). With great
effort, the judicial controls can begin to battle the racial bias
of Americas Judicial system but to completely eliminate such a
bias, the people involved in the judicial process must learn to
look past the race of the offender or the value of the victim, and
instead focus on circumstances of the crime. 

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