Ever since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, our nation has been divided on the use of capital punishment within the judicial system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics between 1977 and 2010, of the 7,879 people under sentence of death, 16% had been executed (1,260 people). You can now say 1,303 people: 43 prisoners died from lethal injections this past year. In the blog, Contexts, author Sarah Shannon argues how “Lady Justice” within the United States is ‘random.’ Supporters of the death penalty, according to Shannon, believe that people who perform the most horrific crimes should receive harsher punishments. That idealistic notion, unfortunately, does not happen in our world.

Shannon does not provide much of a personal opinion, but she refers to several authors and their studies throughout her post. They conclude that the death penalty should be eliminated because harsher punishments are distributed on the basis of race and geography, rather than the offense of the crime. John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, analyzed all murder cases in Connecticut over a 34 year period.  Lincoln Caplan’s New York Times editorial provides greater detail about Donahue’s study.

Out of the 4,686 murders committed in Connecticut, only 205 were considered ‘death-eligible’ cases. Out of these 205 cases,  only 29 defendants had to attend a death-sentencing hearing. Donohue compared all 205 cases through a rating system with four factors: victim suffering, victim characteristics, defendant’s culpability, and the number of victims. Among those 29 defendants, “there was no clear difference in the level of egregiousness for the 17 who got life without parole and the 12 sentenced to death” (Caplan). Essentially inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape that penalty, illustrating that the death penalty process is both arbitrary and discriminatory.

Another controversial theme about the death penalty is what types of people are sentenced to death.  At the end of 2010, 36 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons held 3,158 inmates under sentence of death. Of those sentenced to death, 55% were white and 42% were black (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

Shannon cites information from another Context blogger, Suzy Maves McElrath. McElrath references Scott Philip’s study in Harris County, Texas, from 1992 to 1999, which claimed that the victim’s status (i.e. highly educated vs. uneducated) influenced the defendant’s sentence. As a result, Philips concluded that death was more likely to be imposed against black defendants than white defendants, and death was more likely to be imposed on behalf of white victims than black victims. Sure, within certain regions of the country, it seems like blacks are targeted more than whites, but nationally, more white prisoners have been executed (57%) than black prisoners (34%) since the death penalty was reinstated (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

Philip’s study got me thinking about the execution of death row prisoner Troy Davis on September 21st 2011. To provide a little background information, Davis had been on death row for 22 years, after being convicted of murdering off-duty Savannah, Georgia, policeman Mark MacPhail in 1989. Davis’s public support, which included celebrities, social media, and even the Pope, increased dramatically when seven witnesses from his trial said that “they lied and were pressured from the prosecution”; another suspect was also on the verge of confessing. While many people would believe that these events could cast reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court denied Davis’s stay of execution. There was outrage and cries of racism across the country. Would Davis have been spared if he was white? I’m not entirely sure. My question is: would have Davis gotten this much publicity if he was white?

To conclude, I would like to point out that unlike the United States, concerns about the death penalty are virtually non-existent across the pond.  When I was studying abroad in Spain last semester, my host family and I were watching footage of the Troy Davis execution.  As I mentioned on Shannon’s post, my family was shocked that prisoners in the United States could be executed. My sister informed me that the European Union (EU), does not support the death penalty and that Spain does not have ‘life in prison’ sentences: the maximum sentence for murder is 30 years. As she explained it, rather than shunning prisoners from the outside world for the rest of their lives, the hope of the justice system is to help prisoners be able to re-enter society. From a deontological perspective, the Spanish justice system believes that it’s their moral duty to help all members of their society, including those who have already caused pain and suffering to others.  Personally, the thought of a previously convicted murderer walking along the street just sounds morally wrong, especially since their victim(s) is still dead. Then again, doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?

10 responses »

  1. Jordi says:

    You mean Troy Davis’ would have gotten less publicity were he White because the larger media context that presumes racial inequality against Blacks made it a more compelling story? Or, are you saying that there was something like “reverse discrimination” for Troy Davis? That the media outlets and anti-death penalty activists care more about a Black man than a White man?

    • Kate says:

      I believe that the Troy Davis’s execution was a more compelling story because he was black. The ‘murder’ took place in the South, an area where Blacks are historically targeted, and evidence was presented to the Supreme Court that Davis may have not necessarily committed the crime. Many people believe that Davis was an innocent man who died as a consequence of racism, which obviously creates a more captivating story. I also have yet to see this much publicity for a white man or woman before their lethal injection.

      I also did comment on Sarah Shannon’s blog and she commented back this afternoon. She told me that I would be interested in a book chapter that she has written with Chris Uggen for the New Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology. She says that the chapter essentially puts US punishment in international perspective. Sounds very interesting!

      • Jordi says:


          This article about a Texas man, White, was not as visible, but it is fascinating and disturbing. Hold cursor here to see link, it is same color as background (sheesh): http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

          Have you heard about the innocence project?

      • Kate says:

        I actually heard about the innocence project during my intro to biology class. I commend the organization for its work in freeing innocent (convicted) prisoners and saving their lives. However, it sheds light on the fact that forensic analysts need to constantly be re-tested in their abilities to examine and study DNA from a crime scene. At times, not only do analysts use improper or invalid techniques, but they have fabricated the results. Yes, I understand that everyone makes mistakes, but when it comes to deciding whether someone innocent is going to receive the death penalty or not, there is no room for error.

  2. Jordi says:

    I like how much research you put into this. Sounds like you did comment on the other blog too, right? I wonder what feedback you will get?

    In the Spain context, I think it is also a more “liberal” attitude because the specter of fascist Spain still colors much of the political life. Franco would have used the death penalty for political ends and as Spain transitioned, I think they wanted to cut off that much power from anyone in office.

  3. Jordi says:

    By the way, I don’t think you need a question mark in your title. 🙂

  4. Lindsay S. says:

    Speaking of the innocence project, last spring semester, I attended Dewey Bozella’s campus address. He was freed thanks to the innocence project in 2009 after being imprisoned for 26 years for a murder which he was falsely accused. It was incredible to hear how he remained sane after two and a half decades in prison knowing he was completely innocent. This issue of race and geography often playing a large role in murder trials, as you mentioned Kate, was clearly a major component of Mr. Bozella’s trial given he was a black man accused of the murder of an elderly white woman in Poughkeepsie, New York.

    I also think the innocence project is an outstanding initiative; when a trial virtually took an individual’s life away by placing him behind bars for the rest of his existence, there better not be a shadow of doubt about that person’s guilt. As the innocence project shows, as well as your research Kate, that is sadly almost never the case. Although 26 years of Mr. Bozella’s life were spent in prison, at least he is now free and able to share his story with others around the nation and educate everyone on some of the issues undermining our criminal justice system.

  5. Lindsay S. says:

    Even with fewer errors being made, so much unavoidable human bias plays too significant a role in the trial process for the death penalty to ever be just. I feel some crimes are so awful that the culprits should never walk freely again, but I do not think they should be put to death. While imprisoned, the person is still alive and their case therefore could be revisited if new evidence was discovered or a new technology invented that could reveal more about the case. Locking someone up with the intent of preventing future crimes is justified, but I feel putting someone to death is too extreme. I do not believe a human ever has the right to take another human’s life away, except perhaps in the case of an evil mastermind like Osama Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler. With regards to a typical murder case though, as demonstrated by the study of Connecticut murder defendants that Kate referenced, it is so arbitrary who is put to death and who receives a life sentence without parole. A decision to take someone’s life away should not be made on such a fickle judgement.

  6. Connie says:

    While I do admire that the European Union does not support the death penalty nor believes in a ‘life in prison’ sentence, and would much rather help prisoners rehabilitate so that they can re-enter society, I just don’t think that everyone deserves that opportunity. Yes, I understand that there are certain human rights of theirs that are being violated, but consider all the human rights that their victims were deprived of. It is certainly always a battle when determining the morality of killing one to save a bunch since who is to decide that one life is worth more than another? However, I just feel like in certain situations, you inherently know what the right decision is, despite the morality tug-of-war.

    This entry also got me thinking about a scene in the movie Law Abiding Citizen involving the death penalty. To set the scene (possible spoiler alert!): There were two men involved in a home invasion that ended in the murder of the wife and a daughter in front of the husband, as he was losing consciousness after being stabbed. The husband’s testimony was insufficient to prove either suspect’s guilt; therefore, the DA strikes a deal with one of the men, Darby (the actual murderer), to give testimony against the other suspect, Ames, to send him to death row, while Darby receives a lesser sentence. In this case, I felt like the justice system was seeking the death penalty at all costs, no matter who it was, just so that they can say that ‘justice was served.’ Therefore, the death penalty becomes a tool that can be manipulated on a case-by-case basis if the story is “compelling” enough. As Donuhue’s study shows, there isn’t enough consistency in the use of the death penalty, so it makes it seem as if the justice system just uses it when they feel like it. While I recognize the difficulty in making a “standard” for the death penalty, I feel like there needs to be some minimal guidelines to abide by to avoid any egregiously wrongful prosecutions.

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