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.

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
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 to receive the death penalty
as those who killed blacks. And blacks who killed whites were most likely of
all to be condemned to die" (As cited in Lacayo, 1987, 80). According to Gest
(1996), of those executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 80% have
murdered whites, while only 12% of those executed in the same time period have
had black victims. These figures show an obvious trend of racial bias against
those who murdered whites. Could these disparities be because, as sociologist
Michael Radelet put it, "Prosecutors are political animals, they are influenced
by community outrage, which is subtly influenced by race," or is it because "it
is built into the system that those in the predominant race will be more
concerned about crime victims of their own race," as stated by Welsh White of
the University of Pittsburgh Law School (As cited in Gest, 1986, 25).

Because of the immense possibility of discrimination in sentencing in capital
punishment cases, each stage of prosecution must be controlled as much as
possible. Although these offenders are the worst the criminal justice
system has to offer, prosecutors must be encouraged to