Discrimination Within The Death Penalty Essay

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?They [prisoners sentenced to death] are almost all poor, usually white, often high school dropouts. Most have never killed before. Most are from the South? (Benac).

Opponents of the death penalty have said that capital punishment does nothing to deter crime. There is some critical information that is important to know before going more in depth on this discussion. The purpose of this paper is not to discuss whether capital punishment is effective in deterring crime nor does it present any ethical arguments regarding it. It is to discuss whether it is used in a universally just and fair manner. Presently, approximately 3, 565 prisoners are living on death row. The costs for death penalty cases are enormous, possibly soaring in to the millions. (National Association?) ?Since 1973, over 160 children [defined as anyone under the age of 18] in the U.S. have been sentenced to die? (National Association?). It is possible that ten percent of death row inmates are mentally retarded. ?Approximately 90% of those whom prosecutors seek to execute are African-Americans or Latino? (National Association?). Considering all of the above facts, there are obviously some distinct problems with the manner in which the death penalty is imposed. In particular, class differences along with race can drastically affect the manner in which death penalty cases are handled.

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Lower class people get a worse defense than wealthy people. The costs for a capital defense case can add up quickly: DNA tests, experts, background and psychiatric investigations. Many lower class people have to ?depend upon public attorneys who are not really qualified? (ABCNEWS.com?). There is a bill in Congress that would
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regulate state standards for appointed defense attorneys for capital cases but it is doubtful that this will be a quick solution. There is also a bill in Congress that would guarantee DNA analysis for inmates, both federal and state, after their convictions. (ABCNEWS.com?) The awareness of this problem is even occurring in the Supreme Court.

There have been many attempts to fix what is wrong with capital punishment and sentencing. According to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman in the Collins versus Collins 1994 decision, ?the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake?? (Culver). It has to be admitted that race plays a part as well as class since normally the two social aspects go hand in hand. Not only race of the defendant but of the victim have to be considered when understanding the idiosyncrasies of sentencing. While race may be focused on more in the media, class or socioeconomic status controls the reins even more. ?The vast majority of people executed since 1977, when employed, worked in menial or low-paying jobs at the time they committed their capital crimes? (Culver). Not only is income level influential but educational level is as well. The average educational level for prisoners on death row in 1996 was only the 11th grade with 15% of them having less that an 8th grade education. (Culver)
One of the chief concerns in the sentencing phase is that of the defense attorney. Lower class people cannot afford high-profile lawyers or those experienced specifically
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in capital cases. The attorney may not have a great deal of competency when it comes to criminal law. The accused also may not be able to help provide resources for such things as analysis and/or research that would aid in defense. ?The attorney who is inexperienced and who represents an indigent accused of a capital crime is unlikely to command the resources needed to assemble a panel of mental health professionals and verify the extent of the problems maintained by the defense or to persuade a jury of the important absence of other compelling evidence? (Culver). This also helps explain why the mentally retarded do not get fair trials either and, even with the mentality of a child, can end up on death row.

The astronomical costs of representation in federal death penalty cases stems from the sever pressure the cases place on the attorneys along with several other factors. These factors may include the following: skill of the counsel, the amount of time the lawyer has to spend on the case, the hourly rate of the lawyer, and the additional expert or investigative services. (?Federal Death Penalty??) The defense must also worry about two trials since death penalty cases are bifurcated trials. This means the guilt or innocence is decided in the first part while the punishment is decided in the second phase. Lawyers have to be very familiar with ?sentencing guidelines, speed trial act, rules of evidence and procedure, and the specifics of the federal death penalty law?? (?Federal Death Penalty??). A court appointed attorney normally does not have the experience to be effective in this type of trial.

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Race also plays a prominent role in sentencing for the death penalty as it normally coincides with socioeconomic status in this country. ?Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 28% of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 16% of Hispanic males and 4.4% of white males? (Bureau of Justice?). This statistic is important because prior criminal convictions normally lead to the types of crimes that are tried for the death penalty. ?Race is more likely to affect death sentencing than smoking affects the likelihood of dying from heart disease? (Dieter). In cases where the act is very heinous, race plays less of a part. But, unfortunately or fortunately depending on how one examines it, these cases are fewest in number.

The defendants to victim ratios of the actual executions are very obviously racially skewed as this table illustrates.

White defendant White victim 56.81%
White defendant Black victim 1.17%
White defendant Asian victim .47%
White defendant Latino victim 1.64%
Black defendant White victim 23.47%
Black defendant Black victim 11.50%
Black defendant Asian victim .47%
Black defendant Latino victim .23%
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Race of Victims Percentage of Total
White 82.16%
Black 12.91%
Latino 3.29%
Asian 1.64%
National Awareness:
The National Criminal Justice Commission published a report on crime in 1996 detailing all aspects of crime in the United States. It acknowledges the relationship between poverty, family breakdown, and criminal justice. It also demonstrates that there are more minorities that whites in the criminal justice system. (Donziger) It must be admitted, therefore, that justice does not always prevail for those of all races and socioeconomic strata.

One of the most notable problems, the Commission found, was the cost of defense. ?The overwhelming majority of people accused of crimes cannot afford to hire their own attorney, let alone expert witnesses?.Nor do they have the funds to analyze DNA evidence independent of the prosecution, a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars? (Donziger). Public defenders are almost always pushed to the limit not only financially but with time as well. Some public defenders can carry 350 cases or more at a time. It might even occur that a public defender might not meet his or her client until the day of the trial.
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There have been a number of studies detailing the criminalization of minorities. In a 1989 report on The Sentencing Project, it was found that one out of every four African-American men aged 20 to 29 were either incarcerated, on probation, or out on parole. (Donziger) It was found in 1993 by a Federal Court in Duval County, Florida, that 76% of African-American men [in that county] would be arrested and jailed at least one time before the age of 36. (Donziger) Later, The Sentencing Project, in 1995, found that ?on an average day in America, one out of three African-American men aged 20-29 was either in prison or jail, on probation or parole? (Donziger). These findings indicate that minorities are very obviously not given equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

There are several groups who argue that the ?death penalty is administered in disproportionately higher frequency on the poor, who cannot afford qualified counsel, and minorities, who are widely represented on death row? (Facts on file?). These groups include some of the following: American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In 1972, the Supreme Court found that the methods and system of capital punishment were laden with discrimination. The Court then struck down all the death penalty laws existing in the 32 states which had allowed the death penalty. (Facts on file?) The Supreme Court re-examined the new laws developed by each state and decided to reinstate some practical conditions: one being the bifurcated trial method developed in Georgia. Since that time, the Federal government and each state’s government has been responsible for examining the capital punishment system.

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Texas Death Row:
?While forty states provide for capital punishment, nowhere has it been embraced as enthusiastically as in Texas, with a reported 90 percent public approval rate?fully one-third of all executions in the United States [take place in Texas]? (Donovan, 8). The distinctive difference in executing those members of the lower class has been seen in Texas just like the rest of the United States. ?The men of Death Row are disproportionately poor, uneducated, and African-American compared to the rest of the population (although in absolute numbers, the majority is Caucasian)? (Donovan, 15). This is stating that although the majority of men on death row are white, compared to the overall population percentage African-Americans are very obviously discriminated against. It also highlights that the men are of a lower class and mainly without education.

The state of Texas, with its exorbitant use of the death penalty, even has problems itself. ?What the political debate over laws governing capital murder trials and appeals never acknowledges is the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system, or the laws in the death penalty schemes? (Donovan, 16). The death penalty might actually act as a deterrent to crime if it was used effectively. ?In the 1930s, murderers were often executed within months of committing a crime. In 1999, the median murderer was executed for a crime committed in 1988? (Tucker). However, since the 1930s, the actual time on death row has lengthened immensely. ?The average length of time between conviction and execution in Texas is seven and a half years?.(This will change eventually since recently passes state and federal laws governing post-conviction habeas corpus appeals are designed to reduce the time from final conviction)? (Donovan, 9). It
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is almost guaranteed that no matter how many laws go through the system, there will never be a law that ensures that people of all classes get equal quality representation at their trial regardless of their race or class.

Information regarding Texas Executions:
Employment Type Number (out of most recent executed)
Truck driver 3
Barber 1
Auto sales 1
Roofer 2
Electrician 2
Press operator 2
Welder 1
Laborer 12
Mechanic 4
Carpenter 2
Manager 3
Construction 3
Nurse’s aide 1
Auto body repair 1
Commercial printer 1
Clerk 1
Dry Waller 1
Correctional officer 1
Clerical 1
Computer technology 1
Painter 1
Cashier 1
Attendant 1
Cable TV technology 1
Education Level Number
7th grade 3
8th grade 3
9th grade 5
9th with GED 1
10th grade 6
10th with GED 3
11th grade 8
11th with GED 3
12th grade 9
12 years plus 7
Unknown 1
(Prisoner Information?)
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?Economic standing is more likely to explain why some defendants are sentenced to death, while others convicted of similar charges are sentenced to life in prison? (Culver). The media is just now starting to wake up and realize that the class differences within the criminal justice system and capital punishment are a serious problem. It was once said by a judge: ??The Constitution guarantees you a right to a lawyer, but it doesn’t guarantee you that the lawyer has to be awake’? (?Race, Class,). This was a statement made after a man was sentenced to die even though his lawyer had slept through the trial. Not just cat napped but audibly snored. If that is not a blatant case of injustice, how do we begin to fix what is going on? What is necessary to make people realize that it is not just race that plays a part in social injustice but socioeconomic status as well?
Social Issues


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