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Socialist Review, July/August 1994

Michael Ross

A matter of life and death


From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Michael Ross is a convicted murderer at present on Death Row in the US. He is an ardent campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty, although he accepts that he should be executed. Here we print his article on the racist nature of capital punishment, along with two letters urging him not to agree to execution

‘Evidence shows that there is a better than even chance in Georgia that race will influence the decision to impose the death penalty: a majority of defendants in white-victim crimes would not have been sentenced to die if their victims had been black.’

Surprisingly those words were written by former United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when he criticised the majority of the court for continuing to uphold a ‘capital-sentencing system in which race more likely than not plays a role.’ Racism; it’s a nasty word and many people would prefer to look the other way and deny its very existence. But not only does it exist, it exists in one of the most sensitive areas of our judicial system – capital punishment. The question of racial discrimination in capital sentencing procedures has prompted an ongoing debate.

There is much evidence to show that race is an important factor in determining who will be sentenced to die for a crime and who will receive a lesser punishment for the exact same crime. Extensive research on capital sentencing patterns over the past 20 years have repeatedly found that race considerations, whether conscious or subconscious, permeate decisions of life and death in state courts throughout the US.

One simple way to see this is to examine the make up of the current death row population. As of January 1994, 40 percent (1,117) of the prisoners under sentence of death in America were black, despite the fact that blacks comprise only about 12 percent of the population nationally. In some states blacks condemned to death outnumber whites condemned to death. Finally, if you consider all minorities as a group, a full 50 percent (1,401 men and women) on death row today are non-white.

Consider a few statistics:

Although many people would find these statistics shocking, they might not be too surprised. After all, the South has always been perceived as being more racist than the rest of the country. So consider a few statistics from some other, non-Southern, states:

And while I don’t have the figures of the minority population for the two states with the country’s largest death row populations, both have significantly high minority populations of condemned men.

In California 215 (56 percent) of the 380 death row inmates are non-white, and in Texas 203 (56 percent) of their 363 death row inmates are non-white.

However, statistics on the race of the offender alone do not necessarily prove bias, given that roughly 50 percent of those arrested for murder are black. Of far more significance are the racial disparities revealed by an examination of the race of the murder victim in cases where the death penalty is imposed. The 227 prisoners executed between 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated by the courts) and January 1994 had been convicted of killing 302 victims. Of these victims 255 were white and only 47 were black or of another minority group. While 86 black or ethnic minority prisoners have been executed for murdering white victims, only two white murderers have been executed for the murder of a non-white – one for the murder of a black man and one for the murder of an Asian woman.

A study done in the late 1970s by William Bowers and Glenn Pierce, both of Northeastern University, compared statistics on all criminal homicides and death sentences imposed in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Ohio. Death sentences in these four states accounted for 70 percent of all the death sentences imposed nationally at that time. They found that far more killers of whites than killers of blacks were sentenced to death. They also found that, although most killers of whites were white, blacks who killed whites were proportionately more likely to receive the death sentence than any other group.

In Florida and Texas, for example, blacks who killed whites were, respectively, five and six times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who killed whites. And among black offenders in Florida, those who killed whites were 40 times more likely to get the death penalty than those who killed blacks. No white offender in Florida had ever been sentenced to death for killing a black person up through the period studied (a white man sentenced to death in Florida in 1980 for killing a black woman was the first white person in that state to be sentenced to death for the murder of a sole black person – and he has yet to be executed). An exhaustive study conducted in the early 1980s by Professor David Baldus sought to discover why killers of white victims in Georgia had received the death penalty approximately 11 times more often than killers of black victims. He found that the two most significant points affecting the likelihood of an eventual death sentence were the prosecutor’s decisions on whether or not to permit plea bargains and whether or not to seek a death sentence after a murder conviction. Black victim cases were far more likely than others to have their charges reduced. Black defendants with white victims were less likely to have their charges reduced and more likely than others, upon conviction of murder, to receive the death penalty.

Baldus noted that prosecutors had sought the death penalty in only 40 percent of the cases where defendants were convicted of a capital crime – the others received automatic life sentences without a penalty hearing. But perhaps the most disturbing finding was that, although cases with white victims tended to be more aggravated in general, the levels of aggravation in crimes involving black victims had to be substantially higher before prosecutors would seek the death penalty. Thus the overall disparities in death sentencing were due more to the prosecutor’s charging and sentencing recommendations than to any jury sentencing decisions.

In areas with a large white majority population that strongly supports the use of capital punishment, there is inevitably more pressure on prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases with white victims than in those with black victims or victims from other minorities. Also, in general, there is more community outrage, publicity and public pressure when the murder victim comes from a middle class background.

In 1987 the United States Supreme Court examined the issue of racial discrimination in the death penalty, in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, to determine if Georgia’s capital punishment system violated the Equal Prosecution Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court, by a narrow five to four majority, concluded that statistics alone do not prove that race entered into any capital sentencing decision in any one particular case.

The majority indicated that the arguments should be presented to the individual state legislative bodies, for it is their responsibility, not the court’s, to determine the appropriate punishment for particular crimes. They noted that ‘despite McCleskey’s wide ranging arguments that basically challenge the validity of capital punishment in our multi-racial society, the only question before us is whether in his case... the law of Georgia was properly applied.’ In a dissenting opinion, justice John Paul Stevens noted:

‘The court’s decision appears to be based on a fear that acceptance of McCleskey’s claim would sound the death knell for capital punishment ... If society were indeed forced to choose between a racially discriminatory death penalty (one that provides heightened protection against murder “for whites only” and no death penalty at all, the choice mandated by the Constitution would be plain.’

Following the McCleskey ruling a Congressional bill entitled the ‘Racial Justice Act’ was drafted. The bill would forbid ‘racially disproportionate capital sentencing’ and would outlaw death sentences found to have been imposed in a racially discriminatory manner. It was debated and defeated in the Senate by a vote of 52 to 35 in 1988. In subsequent years this same bill has been consistently defeated on every occasion that it has come up for a vote.

We cannot simply continue to live with the illusion that capital punishment works in the perfect unbiased manner that we desire.

While we may wish otherwise, race has an indisputable and integral part in our capital punishment system. One of the most telling statistics is that six of every 11 defendants convicted of killing a white person would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been black. These figures may vary from state to state, but the underlying conclusion remains the same: the taking of a white life is worth greater punishment than the taking of a black life. Is this the kind of system that we want? It is clearly time to abolish the death penalty.

Dear Michael
from Peter Linebaugh

Dear Michael
from John Rees

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