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Capital Punishment in the US

Info: 2603 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 18th Sep 2017 in Politics

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Katie Sawtelle

Capital Punishment: America’s Blood Stained Hands

In 2015, the most executions took place in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America (“Death Penalty 2015”). What a peculiarity it is to see the U.S. included in the list alongside undemocratic nations. America is the only westernized country that still continues to put the death penalty to use. Capital punishment should be abolished for it delivers inadequate legal representation and is discriminatory toward racial minorities.

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It is a fundamental right for a defendant in a capital case to be assigned a competent lawyer, yet, more often than not, court appointed public defenders often lack the skills and drive for effective representation. A common characteristic of those on death row is poverty. It is estimated that around 90% of inmates on death row could not afford to hire an adequate attorney (American Civil Liberties Union). Without a competent lawyer, a defendant’s case barely stands a chance. In the spring of 2014, Glenn Ford, an African-American man, was released from a Louisiana prison after spending thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit (Bright). Ford could not afford an attorney in his capital case, so the court appointed him two lawyers for his representation. One of the lawyers was an oil and gas attorney who had never presented a case in front of a jury before. The second lawyer was a recent law school graduate that worked for an insurance firm. Despite the weak case presented against Ford, the all white jury sentenced him to death (Bright). It is not equal justice when the defendant receives inadequate representation just because of the amount of money he or she has. Appropriately put, those without the capital get the punishment (Von Drehle).

Those accused of capital crimes rely on lawyers to protect their legal rights, investigate, and present evidence that will doubt their guilt. It is extremely difficult for a low-income defendant to navigate the legal justice system on their own. One major reason that innocent defendants have been placed on death row and executed is due to incompetent or inexperienced court-appointed lawyers; in extreme cases, some attorneys have been found asleep, intoxicated, or under the influence of drugs during trial proceedings (Bright). Some may argue that if court appointed lawyers were much better, then guilty people could be acquitted. That may be true, however, the more important issue regarding better court-appointed lawyers is that innocent people could be acquitted. Innocent people that were convicted and executed could have possibly lived out the rest of their lives if they had received better court-appointed legal defense.

In some states, people sentenced to death may receive legal representation from pro-bono (free service for the public) lawyers or from public organizations. Most of the time, there is not enough pro-bono attorneys for all of the poor defendants facing death row. This could possibly result in the defendant obtaining an inept court-appointed lawyer. To receive a new trial, a defendant could file for post-conviction relief and state that their constitutional rights were violated, however, it is usually only possible for those who can afford lawyers. Some states provide lawyers for post-conviction relief, although the majority of the nation does not. Regardless of whether a defendant’s constitutional rights were violated at trial, they still may have to face execution. A number of people are sentenced to death not because they committed the most heinous crime, rather, the courts did not provide them with competent legal representation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a United States Supreme Court Justice has said, “I have yet to see a death case, among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve of execution petitions, in which the defendant was well represented at trial” (Bright). The amount of money a defendant has in capital cases can be the difference between life and death; In present day America, it is better to be rich and guilty, than poor and innocent (Bright).

The death penalty in the antebellum South (1815-1861) was a tool of white supremacy. The possibility of slave uprisings haunted slave owners, therefore, the death penalty was regularly enforced to resist slave opposition. (Von Drehle). In Virginia, during the antebellum era, it was a capital offense for a slave to administer medicine, for it could have been poison. Also, an old statute in Georgia stated that if a slave left a bruise on his master, he could receive capital punishment (Von Drehle). The late M. Watt Espy, a researcher that studied capital punishment, recorded around 15,000 executions in the United States dating from 1608 to 1972 (Von Drehle). Espy’s research and recordings reveal racial disparity in U.S. executions. His research suggests that in a significantly white America, more blacks than whites are executed. Whites were rarely put to death for crimes that involved African-American victims (Von Drehle). A study of the death penalty done by the University of Texas proposed that America’s modern-day capital punishment system is “an outgrowth of the racist legacy of slavery” (qtd. in American Civil Liberties Union). Racial bias is still very much alive in the modern justice system of America

It is far more likely for racial minorities (African-American and Latinos) to be placed on death row and be put to death than white people– particularly if the victim is white. A recent Louisiana study conducted by Glenn Pierce (research scientist at Northeastern University) and Michael Radelet (Professor of Sociology at University of Colorado-Boulder) indicated that “defendants with white victims were 97% more likely to receive death sentences than defendants with black victims” (qtd. in American Civil Liberties Union). In the United States, blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly exact numbers, which is exceptionally high considering that 13% of the population is African-American. Between the years 1930 and 1996, around 4,200 prisoners were put to death in America; more than half of those prisoners were black (American Civil Liberties Union). America’s death row has always had a large population of African Americans and they are often killed for what are deemed “less-than-capital offenses for whites, such as rape and burglary (American Civil Liberties Union). It has been asserted that racial discrimination and the death penalty are part of America’s past, nevertheless, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, around half of those on death row at any given time have been minorities.

Florida Latinos are beginning to shift away from the death penalty. The state of Florida has one of the lowest bars for sentencing someone to death by not requiring a unanimous jury recommendation, and they lead the nation in death row inmates being released due to wrongful convictions (Cartagena). For these reasons, Florida’s death penalty has been struck down as unconstitutional twice in 2016. Four Florida counties– Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Duval– are among 16 counties nationwide that have each had five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015 (Cartagena). All of these counties have been found to suffer from “prosecutor misconduct, bad defense lawyers, wrongful convictions and racial bias” (Cartagena). From 2010-2015, every inmate in Miami-Dade County who was sentenced to death, was black or Latino. Yet, studies argue that in most locations across America, minorities are responsible for less than half of homicides (“Too Broken to Fix”).

The nation’s largest death row capacity resides in Los Angeles County, California and statisticians expect continued growth. In 2013, reports revealed that Los Angeles County was “responsible for more death row prisoners than any other county in the United States, and it has ranked as one of the two most prolific counties in imposing new death sentences each year since” (“Too Broken To Fix”). Between the years 2010 and 2015, Los Angeles County imposed 31 death sentences, which adds up to be the most death sentences enforced in any U.S. county during that period (“Too Broken To Fix”). Those 31 death sentences in L.A. show severe racial disparity in their sentences: approximately 94% of the 31 death sentences enforced were directed toward minority (Latino and African-American) defendants and even though “African Americans commit fewer than one-third of all Los Angeles County homicides, they comprised 42% of those condemned to death in this period. 45% of the new death sentences were imposed on Latino defendants” (“Too Broken to Fix”). Only two white defendants received the death penalty. Unsurprisingly, a 2014 study conducted in Southern California concluded that white jurors are more probable to inflict capital punishment when the defendant is Latino and poor than in cases where the defendant is white. Latino jurors presented no such bias (“Too Broken to Fix”). The amount of racial minorities sentenced and executed on death row continues to suggest that capital punishment and racial discrimination are indeed still a part of modern day America.

Since the Supreme Court reinstatement of the death penalty in the mid-1970s, juries in Texas have to determine if the defendant poses a future risk to the public, before applying the death sentence. Most states have the jurors consider past behavior and crimes of the defendant, however, in Texas, juries are asked to predict the future (Vansickle). In essence, these jurors are asked to predict the unpredictable. Those who are pro-death penalty may argue that experts can determine future violence, however, if juries and experts could determine future danger, then there would not be any crime. Currently, in the state of Texas, there are around 240 men and women on death row that have been determined to pose a “threat” to society. The question of future dangerousness has not reduced the amount of death sentences, rather, “testimony on the issue has often instead introduced racial bias into trials” (Death Penalty Information Center).

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments for the Texas death penalty case of Buck v. Davis. In July of 1995, the defendant, Duane Buck, shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her friend (Vansickle). At the trial, Buck’s lawyer initiated testimony from a psychologist that said Buck was dangerous and posed a threat to the public since he was African-American. In 1997, the jury found Buck guilty and sentenced him to death. Before his execution, the Supreme Court halted his case due to the racial bias that resulted in his death sentence. Buck is still awaiting his new sentencing.

Many studies, including one conducted by Cornell University, propose that the race of the victim and defendant play a critical part in whether a person receives the death penalty (qtd. in Vansickle). Criminologists conducted a study used in Buck’s appeal that analyzed racial disparity in Harris County, Texas– the location where Buck was sentenced to death. The study resulted that “from 1992 to 1999, Harris County prosecutors were three and a half times more likely to seek the death penalty against black defendants than white ones. Jurors were more than twice as likely to sentence blacks to death” (Vansickle). Another study led by Jennifer Eberhardt, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, established that in cases with a white victim and a defendant with stereotypical black features, the more probable the defendant would be sentenced to death (Eberhardt). These studies suggest that race plays a detrimental role in whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Race should never be a predictor of dangerousness or influence whether a person receives the death penalty, yet, it is the harsh reality in the land of the free.

With the death penalty, someone will always end up on the short end of the stick; usually that person is either African-American or Latino. The U.S. should not put value on someone’s life based on their skin color, however, it is the current reality. Stephen Bright, Professor of Clinical Law at Yale Law School, argues that the only way for racial prejudice to no longer play a role in the decision of the death penalty is to completely remove capital punishment in the U.S.:

With the long history of slavery, lynchings, convict leasing, segregation, racial oppression and now mass incarceration that has a much greater impact on racial minorities, surely states should eliminate any chance that racial prejudice might play a role. But there is only one way to do that: by eliminating the death penalty. (Bright)

In the United States Constitution and pledge of allegiance, it promises equal justice for all. Yet, race and poverty continue to influence who will be condemned to death in the land of equal opportunity. Finality– not justice, not liberty– is the ultimate goal of the legal system in the United States. Capital punishment desensitizes society.. It teaches the American youth that society solves its problems with violence. It displays the absence of appreciation for life. And, as the equal justice giant, Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “capital punishment is society’s final statement that it will not forgive” (qtd. in Bright). The United States should join 140 other nations in making final the directive: thou shalt not kill.

Works Cited

Bright, Stephen. “Imposition of the death penalty upon the poor, racial minorities, the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill.” New York University Law School, 2014. Web. 7 January 2017.

Bright, Stephen. “Race, Poverty, the Death Penalty, and the Responsibility of the Legal Profession.” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 1.1 (2002): 12. Web. 7 January 2017.

Bright, Stephen. “The Failure to Achieve Fairness: Race and Poverty Continue to Influence Who Dies.” Journal of Constitutional Law 11.1 (2008):16. Web. 7 January 2017.

Cartagena, Juan. “Latino’s join call to end Florida’s death penalty.” Orlando Sentinel. Orlando Sentinel, 10 December 2016. Web. 7 January 2017.

“Death Penalty 2015.” Amnesty International. 6 April 2016. Web. 7 January 2017.

Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center, 2016. Web. 7 January 2017.

Eberhardt, Jennifer. “Looking Deathworthy.” Psychological Science 17.5 (2006): 383-386. Web. 7 January 2017.

“The Case Against the Death Penalty.” American Civil Liberties Union. 2012. Web. 7 January 2017.

“Too Broken to Fix.” Fair Punishment. September 2016. Web. 7 January 2017.

Vansickle, Abbie. “A Deadly Question.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 19 November 2016. Web. 7 January 2017.

Von Drehle, David. “The Death of the Death Penalty.” Time. Time, 8 June 2015. Web. 7 January 2017.


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