Commentary on death penalty: Moratorium is still needed | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary on death penalty: Moratorium is still needed

Apr 18, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Supreme Court’s recent ruling rejecting the argument that lethal injection is inhumane allowed some states to resume executions, but it only addresses a small sliver of the controversy. Justice Stevens went on record stating that the practice of capital punishment might very well be unconstitutional.

Regardless of your belief on the matter, you should know that the larger argument against capital punishment is grounded in dynamics that go far beyond what method is used. Recent research has provided compelling evidence that race plays a major role in the death penalty. We should be arguing for a moratorium on the grounds that the punishment is administered in a consistently biased manner.

Race plays a role in numerous ways: the investigation of a crime, the jury selection, the media portrayal, and the charges brought against the defendant.

The most striking statistic is that, compared to a white defendant killing a black victim, a black person killing a white person is up to 30 times more likely to receive the death penalty.

You might say that murder is such a heinous crime that if a few innocent people are killed in the process of administering capital punishment, it is acceptable. But 30 times more likely -- that’s more than a few.

We can even turn to recent news to reiterate the significant ways race has influenced the system. Last year in Dallas county, Texas, an African-American man, was exonerated by DNA testing. You might argue again that this is simply one example: a byproduct of an aggressive hunt to keep murderers off of the streets, which is going to yield some false positives. What if I then told you that he was the 12th person in the past 15 years in this ONE county whose conviction was overturned?

This type of story is not specific to Texas, and it provides a glaring reflection of what is wrong with our system.

It would behoove us to take a step back and think about why so many cases are being overturned by DNA evidence. The short answer is that we got it wrong. In some cases we can’t be sure if the error occurred in the assumptions made in the investigation, the jury selection, the charges filed, or a combination of these factors. The reality is that somewhere along the line, we sentenced to death individuals who did not commit the crime.

Was it that we assumed a black male is more likely guilty than innocent and followed a cold lead? Or was it the racialized portrayal of crime in the media that skewed the assumptions of potential and future jurors? It could also be the practice of limiting racial diversity in juries for fear of sympathy. Thankfully, this practice has been exposed. Unfortunately, this practice of using race as a factor in eliminating potential jurors - although ruled a violation of the 14th amendment - had to be revisited in 2005 in two separate cases.

I recently took one of my classes to see the film, "Race to Execution," which boldly presents evidence of the ways race affects our legal system. In it, an African-American man who was exonerated based on DNA evidence after over a decade on death row spoke about his experience. What struck me the most were the ways in which evidence was stacked against him:

  • The police had a bloody jacket that did not fit him.
  • The blood stains on his shoes were later tested and found to be chocolate.
  • The public defender he received had never tried a murder case.

He’s now “free” (i.e., not behind bars). However he spoke candidly about how his job and housing prospects are bleak given his fraudulent incarceration. I’m sure similar stories exist, but this one stands out in my mind, because I was witness to its retelling. I was outraged, upset and disappointed. My tax dollars help to support this botched system.

If we are going to engage in a practice of selectively ending the lives of individuals, shouldn’t we also be willing to make sure the system is working?

If you are a proponent of capital punishment -- and have read this far -- recognize that I am not simply saying we should abolish it on a moral basis. I am stating that in its current state, how can we not? It’s blatantly flawed.

Perhaps if we would own up to the disparities and minimize the potential for bias, we can have the debate over whether capital punishment is moral or constitutional. Until then, we should follow the lead of former Illinois governor, George Ryan, in one respect, by advocating for a moratorium.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD, grew up in Edwardsville and is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill.