Racial Bias

The use of the death penalty in the United States has always been deeply affected by race—our history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and lynching all demonstrate the connection. Unfortunately, the days of racial bias in the death penalty system are not a remnant of the past.

There are three major factors impacting the link between race and the death penalty:

  1. African American defendants are sentenced to death at a significantly higher rate than whites.
  2. Murders involving white victims and black defendants are much more likely to be capital cases and to result in a death sentence.
  3. 98% of district attorneys and the overwhelming majority of other criminal justice professionals making decisions about seeking the death penalty are white.

Studies of the death penalty and race in every high-use death penalty state have shown that there is an overwhelming pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both. Race is more likely to affect death sentencing than smoking affects the likelihood of dying from heart disease.

Racism in application of the death penalty shows up in various ways:

  • In individual cases, it is reflected in ethnic slurs hurled at black defendants by the prosecution and even by the defense.
  • It results in black jurors being systematically barred from service, and in the devoting of more resources to white victims of homicide at the expense of black victims.
  • And it results in a death penalty in which blacks are frequently put to death for murdering whites, but whites are almost never executed for murdering blacks.

Such a system of injustice is not merely unfair and unconstitutional–it tears at the very principles to which this country struggles to adhere.

Delaware & Racial Bias

Here in Delaware, a recent Cornell University study of the death penalty found that 70% of our death sentences were imposed in white victim cases, although the majority of murder victims over the same time period were black. The table below is taken from the Cornell University report.

Death Sentence Rate per 1000 Murders (1977-2011)

State Black Offender- White Victim White Offender- White Victim Black Offender-Black Victim White Offender – Black Victim
Delaware 178.5 51.9 25.5 88.2
Georgia 99.2 41.7 4.5 21.4
Indiana 42.3 21.6 5.6 0
Maryland 52.2 14.0 2.4 7.3
Nevada 101.1 37.0 24.9 12.5
Pennsylvania 48.6 22.2 17.7 11.9
South Carolina 67.8 27.1 2.9 50.3
Virginia 64.5 18.3 3.6 2.3

Little Done to Reduce Racial Bias

Despite overwhelming evidence of discrimination, the courts have not worked to correct the problem. In fact, they have denied relief on the grounds that patterns of racial disparities are insufficient to prove racial bias in individual death penalty cases.

Only Kentucky and North Carolina have passed a Racial Justice Act to address the issue of racial bias in the application of the death penalty.

Legislatures on both the federal and state level have failed to pass civil rights laws regarding the death penalty for fear of stopping capital punishment entirely. And so, the sore festers even as executions accelerate and appeals are curtailed.

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