Can we rectify the racial bias in our capital punishment system?

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History of lynching in America

From 1882 to the mid-1900s, 4,743 people reportedly died of lynchings; 3,446 of the reported were black (“History of Lynchings”). The lynchings of black people from the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century provided a sense of white superiority in the US. White authority “did not only tolerate or encourage these killings but used the fear of lynchings to control and oppress black people” (Harrison). With this power over black people, those in control were able to form “justifications… for lynching a black person” (Harrison). A black person in America could be lynched for “fears of interracial sex contaminating the pure white race, disagreeing with a white person, looking at or addressing a white person the ‘wrong way’, bumping into a white person, attempting to speak out or organize to improve black rights, or for simply being black” (Harrison). 

(To the right is the burial of two victims of lynching in Georgia – more information on the image here

Full historical background essay here

Since its beginning in the eighteenth century, the United State’s death penalty has consistently shown to have an extreme bias against people of color, and specifically Black Americans. Stuart Banner, Professor at UCLA’s School of Law, believed the death penalty “offered ‘an alternative form of racial subjugation’”: which was missing after lynchings and slavery were no longer possibilities (Steiker). When statistician George Woodworth analyzed the death penalty rates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1983 and 1993, he came to the consensus that his study “proved that the odds of receiving the death penalty in Philadelphia increased by 38% when the accused was Black” (“Race and the Death Penalty”). Woodworth’s conclusion on the death penalty continues to this day. Of the current 53 people on death row in the United States, 23 are black (Schollenberger), making African Americans “42% of people on death row… [while] only 13% percent of the population” (“Death Penalty”).

Dustin Higgs’s story

Dustin Higgs, like Brandon Bernard, helped inspire me to research the death penalty and its underlying biases. Higgs was executed on January 15th, 2021 by lethal injection in Indiana for murder. After fighting for 21 years on the death penalty, for a crime he shared he was innocent of, nothing worked. Not only did Dustin Higgs have evidence that could imply his innocence, but he also had the actual murder coming forward and clearing his name.

Hundreds of people have fallen to the biases of the death penalty in the United States, and like Dustin Higgs and Brandon Bernard, nothing has seemed to help.

For more information on Dustin Higgs, his official website is here.

The Equal Justice Initiative

In 1989, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative. The Initiative’s goal is to end mass incarceration in the United States as well as excessive punishment. In order to do this, Bryan Stevenson and EJI work against racial and economic injustices and protect those who are the most vulnerable in the country.

The Equal Justice Initiative is one of many trying to amend these systemic issues and to visit their official site – click here.

Response/ Conclusions

The death penalty will continue to be racist unless abolished or profound changes are implemented to lower bias risk. Although abolition is my ultimate goal, to work towards racial equality in capital punishment, the first step we need to take is having a fair jury on every case. Mona Lynch and Craig Haney, authors of Law and Human Behavior, share a story about jury participants comparing two capital cases “that differed only on the crucial variables of victim and defendant race” (Lynch, Haney). Mona Lynch and Craig Haney were able to “pinpoint at least two psychological mechanisms that appeared to mediate racially biased death sentencing” (Lynch, Haney). The authors realized their “ability to understand the judicial guidelines that jurors are supposed to use in making their sentencing decisions, and the willingness and ability to empathize with the defendant’s life story” changed, depending on the victim’s race and defendant (Lynch, Haney). To solve this long-standing problem, capital punishment cases should require jurors to have “clear and comprehensible judicial instructions [that are] implemented, and explained to provide capital jurors with meaningful standards upon which to make informed, reliable, and fair judgments” (Lynch, Haney). Ultimately, court cases need to work to not only educate the jury on the case but also supply them with all the key information so they can make educated decisions.

Full solution essay here.

How can you help?

By signing petitions to advocate for those on death row to educating yourself on the topic, you can make a big change. The death penalty has proven itself to be, time and time again, a biased system that needs to be amended. And if you are of age to serve on jury duty, make sure that you are as educated as you can possibly be to help avoid any biases and unfair trials. HERE, I have linked the petition for Pervis Payne, who has a strong innocence claim and an intellectual disability, to be taken off of death row.

Resources Consulted/ Cited HERE

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Hi Laruen! I learned so much from your project. By laying out the history of lynching and connecting it to the death penalty I can see how biased or system is. It makes the clear connection that we didn’t change society but we just put another label on it that made it seem less extreme.

  2. Hi Lauren,

    I found this site to be very interesting. It’s an extremely controversial topic and I thought your approach and structure to your website was great! Just from reading your site many things have popped into my head, one question was how could we not only abolish the death penalty but enforce the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”. It seemed like the example cases you brought up already had a predefined conclusion from the jury, and I was wondering if you had any ideas to fix this issue?

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