Condemning the Other in Death Penalty Trials: Biographical Racism, Structural Mitigation, and the Empathic Divide

By Craig Haney / DePaul Law Review, on 1 January 2004

This article analyses racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty – despite their importance to the critical debate over the fairness of capital punishment – are not able to address the effects of many of the most pernicious forms of racism in American society. In particular, they cannot examine “biographical racism” – the accumulation of race-based obstacles, indignities, and criminogenic influences that characterizes the life histories of so many African-American capital defendants. Second, I propose that recognizing the role of this especially pernicious form of racism in the lives of capital defendants has significant implications for the way we estimate fairness (as opposed to parity) in our analyses of death sentencing. Chronic exposure to race-based, life-altering experiences in the form of biographical racism represents a profoundly important kind of “structural mitigation.” Because of the way our capital sentencing laws are fashioned, and the requirement that jurors must engage in a “moral inquiry into the culpability” of anyone whom they might sentence to die, this kind of mitigation provides a built-in argument against imposing the death penalty on African-American capital defendants. It is structured into their social histories by the nature of the society into which they have been born.

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Discrimination,