The Effects of Race on Sentencing in Capital Punishment Cases

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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...
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