Racial bias found in death penalty cases. Many studies reveal widespread prejudice against blacks
The United States Supreme Court in 1972 struck down the death penalty on constitutional grounds in part because of concerns that blacks were more likely than whites to receive capital sentences. The death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after guidelines were implemented to guard against racial bias in cases that could lead to execution.Skip to next paragraph
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Given the current mood of the court, it seems unlikely that capital punishment will again be struck down altogether. Rather the relevant question is: If capital punishment is to continue, how can the government make sure that murder defendants aren't discriminated against because of their race.
This is a requirement of the US Constitution.
Prof. David C. Baldus of the University of Iowa law school, suggests that death sentences should be sharply limited to only the most heinous crimes (mass killing, torture, etc.).
He says that in his study of discrimination against black murderers in Georgia, racial discrimination appeared to be greatest in the less heinous cases or so-called middle-level murder cases. But in the most heinous cases, he says, race appears to play almost no role in who receives the death penalty.
``One way to eliminate discrimination in the system is to limit death sentences only to cases where everyone gets them,'' says Mr. Baldus.
``Over half the death sentences imposed in Georgia were imposed in cases where the death sentencing rate is very high -- pretty horrendous cases,'' he says, adding, ``I don't think there is any discrimination of any kind going on among those cases.''
Baldus suggests that state courts could devise a means of identifying what they deemed to be the most serious murder cases. Only cases fitting strict criteria could be tried with the potential penalty of death. Such a system would actively limit the amount of discretion currently open to prosecutors and juries, and curtail the influence of extraneous factors such as race.
It might mean that such cases as the murder of a taxi cab driver during a hold up or the killing of a grocer in a robbery would no longer be considered capital offenses.
The end result would be a more uniform application of the death penalty among all offenders, Baldus says. It would not eliminate race as a factor entirely -- discrimination will always play a role, experts say -- but it would significantly reduce that role.
Stanford law Prof. Samuel Gross agrees that sharply restricting capital punishment to the most heinous cases would reduce the influence of discrimination in the criminal justice system. But he cautions that determining which murders are more heinous and which are less heinous is not an easy task.
Nonetheless, by establishing narrow, well-defined categories for certain crimes, the imposition of the death penalty could be made more uniform, he says.
``The more vague the standards applied, the more discrimination,'' Mr. Gross says.
Gross authored an eight-state study confirming Baldus's findings that the race of a murder victim plays a determinative role in who gets the death penalty when the defendant is black and the victim white.
The Stanford professor says part of the problem of discrimination in death sentences originates with the jury system. He says individual jurors have no way of knowing whether they are applying the death penalty in an evenhanded manner.