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 occurred 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. Caldwells trial lasted three times as long as Walkers 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 Caldwells
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 governments General
Accounting Office found a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in
the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.”

In an article by Seligman (1994), Professor Joseph Katz of Georgia
State “and other scholars have made a separate point about bias claims based on
the devalued lives of murder victims.” Seligman also asserts that those
claiming bias believe that it is in the race of the victim and not the race of
the defendant, and because the lives of blacks have been devalued, people who
murder blacks are less likely to receive death sentences than those who murder
whites (Seligman, 1994, 113). An Iowa Law Professor, David Baldus, also found
that juries put a premium on the lives of victims (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80).
In a study of more than 2,000 Georgia murder cases, Baldus found that “those
who killed whites were 4.3 times as likely