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
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