The Effects Of Race On Sentencing In

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The Effects Of Race On Sentencing In Capital Punishment Cases Essay, Research Paper The Effects of Race on Sentencing in Capital Punishment Cases Throughout history, minorities have been ill-represented in the criminal justice system, particularly in cases where the possible outcome is death. In early America, blacks were lynched for the slightest violation of informal laws and many of these killings occured without any type of due process. As the judicial system has matured, minorities have found better representation but it is not completely unbiased. In the past twenty years strict controls have been implemented but the system still has symptoms of racial bias. This racial bias was first recognized by the Supreme Court in Fruman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). The Supreme

Court Justices decide that the death penalty was being handed out unfairly and according to Gest (1996) the Supreme Court felt the death penalty was being imposed “freakishly’ and ‘wantonly” and “most often on blacks.” Several years later in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), the Supreme Court decided, with efficient controls, the death penalty could be used constitutionally. Yet, even with these various controls, the system does not effectively eliminate racial bias. Since Gregg v. Georgia the total population of all 36 death rows has grown as has the number of judicial controls used by each state. Of the 3,122 people on death row 41% are black while 48% are white (Gest, 1996, 41). This figure may be acceptable at first glance but one must take into account the

fact that only 12% of the U.S. population is black (Smolowe, 1991, 68). Carolyn Snurkowski of the Florida attorney generals office believes that the disproportionate number of blacks on death row can be explained by the fact that, “Many black murders result from barroom brawls that wouldn’t call for the death penalty, but many white murders occur on top of another offense, such as robbery” (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25). This may be true but the Washington Legal Foundation offers their own explanation by arguing that “blacks are arrested for murder at a higher rate than are whites. When arrest totals are factored in , ‘the probability of a white murderer ending up on death row is 33 percent greater than in the case of a black murderer” (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25).

According to Professor Steven Goldstein of Florida State University, “There are so many discretionary stages: whether the prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, whether the jury recommends it, whether the judge gives it” (As cited in Smolowe, 1991, 68). It is in these discretionary stages that racial biases can infect the system of dealing out death sentences. Smolowe (1991) shows this infection by giving examples of two cases decided in February of 1991, both in Columbus. The first example is a white defendant named James Robert Caldwell who was convicted of stabbing his 10 year old son repeatedly and raping and killing his 12 year old daughter. The second example is of a black man, Jerry Walker, convicted of killing a 22-year-old white man while robbing a

convenience-store. Caldwell’s trial lasted three times as long as Walker’s and Caldwell received a life sentence while Walker received a death sentence. In these examples, it is believed that not only the race of the victims, but also the value of the victims, biased the sentencing decisions. The 22-year-old man killed by Walker was the son of a Army commander at Fort Benning while Caldwell’s victims were not influential in the community. In examples such as these, it becomes evident that racial bias, in any or all of the discretionary stages, becomes racial injustice in the end. Smolowe (1991) also makes the point that Columbus is not alone: “A 1990 report prepared by the government’s General Accounting Office found ‘a pattern of evidence indicating racial