Race Discrimination and the Legitimacy of Capital Punishment: Reflections on the Interaction of Fact and Perception

By George Woodworth / David C. Baldus / DePaul Law Review, on 1 January 2004

The authors analyze data concerning race discrimination in capital sentencing and data regarding how the public perceives this issue. They conclude that race discrimination is not an inevitable feature of all death penalty systems. Before Furman v. Georgia was decided in 1972, widespread discrimination against black defendants marred the practice of capital punishment in America. According to studies cited by the authors, race-of-defendant discrimination has lessened since Furman. However, race-of-victim discrimination remains a significant factor in sentencing; defendants with white victims are at a significantly higher risk of being sentenced to death and executed than are defendants whose victims are black, Asian, or Hispanic. From 1976 to 2002, the proportion of white-victim cases among all murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases has ranged between 51% and 56%. However, 81% of executed defendants had white victims. Polling data indicate that the general public perceives only one form of race discrimination in the use of the death penalty – race-of-defendant discrimination – and that the public and elected officials may see racial discrimination as inevitable in the criminal justice system. Race of victim discrimination is a pervasive problem in the death penalty system. However, race discrimination is not inevitable. If serious controls were enacted to address this problem (such as those imposed in a few states) a fairer system could result.

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