Report: The death penalty is a ‘descendant of slavery’

Demonstrators are seen near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., to show their opposition to the death penalty July 13, 2020. (CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters)Demonstrators are seen near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., to show their opposition to the death penalty July 13, 2020. (CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters)

A new Death Penalty Information Center report explores the impact of entrenched racism on the contemporary institution of capital punishment in the United States.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization that works for the abolition of capital punishment, said that the report comes at a moment of national reckoning.

“As the most punitive and irreversible practice found within a criminal legal system known for its widespread racial disparities, the death penalty serves as a sort of litmus test for how our nation is making progress to either dismantle or uphold racism,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said.

“As Catholics [at C.M.N.], we believe the death penalty is unacceptable in all instances because it violates human dignity and deems certain lives invaluable. But what D.P.I.C.’s report lays out so clearly is that the lives deemed worthless by our death penalty system are disproportionately Black lives and the lives of other people of color.”

What D.P.I.C.’s report lays out so clearly is that the lives deemed worthless by our death penalty system are disproportionately Black lives and the lives of other people of color.

Hannah Cox, senior national manager for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said in a statement released in response to the report that the racial bias reflected in “indisputable” death penalty data “is why a large number of conservative GOP state legislators who believe in limited government and individual liberty are leading efforts to end capital punishment.”

“Now is the time for all Republicans to embrace their party’s legacy of abolishing slavery and put an end to America’s racist death penalty,” she added.

After the abolition of slavery and through the mid-20th century, white civilians lynched Black Americans by the thousands, according to the report, titled “Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.” That was before the implementation of the death penalty became understood as an “acceptable alternative to lynchings.” Two maps included in the report suggest that U.S. lynchings recorded during this period align well with the counties in which Black defendants were most often legally executed from 1972 to 2020.

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“The mechanism by which racial bias operates in the death penalty is similar to the way in which it infects other areas of the criminal legal system,” the report’s authors conclude. “This understanding is important as reformers address the challenge of creating a criminal legal system that lives up to the promise of equal justice.”

Today, offenders convicted of killing white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Black victims. Since a short-lived moratorium on the death penalty ended in 1977, 295 Black defendants have been executed for murdering a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for murdering a Black victim.

The mechanism by which racial bias operates in the death penalty is similar to the way in which it infects other areas of the criminal legal system.

The report also notes one study which showed that qualified Black jurors were dismissed at more than double the rate of white jurors, while another found that white jurors were more likely to sentence poor Latino defendants to death than defendants who were poor and white.

Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said that the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works in close collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is committed to educating Catholics about the U.S. death penalty—especially its roots in systemic racism—and amplifying the church’s teaching that “racism is a life issue.” (Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy wrote an article for America last month about Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo man executed by the U.S. government over the objections of the Navajo Nation.)

“As the national Catholic organization committed to the abolition of the death penalty—driven by a pro-life ethic—C.M.N. considers anti-racism work to be inextricable from our mission to transform the U.S. criminal legal system into one that promotes human dignity, hope and healing,” she told America.

According to the report, since as early as the 17th century, the judicial authorities in America have executed Black people at a consistently higher per-capita rate than white people. From 1980 to 2019, the percentage of people on death row who are of color increased to 57.8 percent. Although approximately 60 percent of the American population is white, only 42 percent of those on death row are white, while 42 percent are Black (though only about 13 percent of the total U.S. population is Black) and 13 percent are Latino.

According to the report, the U.S. Supreme Court had the chance to recognize statistical racial discrimination in the death penalty through McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987. It did not. The court did acknowledge that a study had demonstrated the impact of race on death sentences, finding that, particularly in interracial crimes, the race of the victim strongly predicted which defendants would be sentenced to die (white victims correlating to a death sentence at 4.3 times greater the rate). But the court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that statistical evidence could not be used to prove discrimination.

The D.P.I.C. report concludes that accepting racial prejudice in capital punishment implicitly allows for the same in policing, prosecution and incarceration. It “embodies what America most needs to change”—ending legal practices that devalue Black and brown lives.

“Due to the recent string of highly-public acts of racial violence, more and more people are beginning to live into the painful but necessary work of confronting America’s ‘original sin’ of racism,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said. “The modern U.S. death penalty grew out of America’s history of racial violence; as such, confronting racism’s linkages to capital punishment is crucial to dismantling this death-dealing system.”

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