Racial Discrimination and Oppression in Death Penalty Cases

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Table of Contents

  • Reason 1: Racial Profiling 
  • Reason 2: Illegal 
  • Reason 3: Tradition

Is it rational to state that the birth ethnicity of a person can determines if an individual will receive the death penalty in a criminal case in the future; this question may seem harsh but is it accurate? Since 1976, people of color in the United States have accounted for an overwhelming 43% of the total number of executions; while the number of individuals currently awaiting execution is 55% (Race and The Death Penalty). 

According to Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington, a recent study of jurors in Washington 'were four- and one-half times more likely to impose a sentence of death when the defendants were African Americans/black compared to similar cases presented against Caucasian defendants” ( Jurors in Washington). Many African Americans have dealt with the increasing disparity within the justice system and many feel as if the courts are only looking at the color of the individuals being prosecuted and not the case being presented in court; with the color of the individuals on display, many are not optimistic of an acquittal or obtaining parallel amounts of time that may be given to a Caucasian defendant with a similar charge It is unfair to be judged based on one’s ethnicity and in a country’s whose many mottos is one of equal rights; the continuous and increasing number of disparities is saddening, unfair, hostile and harsh; this behavior and continuous practice could be added as an example of racism in America despite our previous beliefs of decreased racism in our modern society. I chose to shed light on this topic because the practice of discrimination in death penalty cases are racial profiling, illegal and a tradition; yet it remains prevalent within our justice system. 

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a shining beacon of hope during the Civil Rights movement because it was also a U.S labor law that was written to disseminate or outlaw any discrimination; this included discrimination based on race, color, nation of origin, sex or religious preference. This Act was supposed to be a landmark law that would bring about change to the people of the United States but based on studies, media and personal actions, it can be positively stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has not fulfilled the rules and hope it once represented specifically for the people of color. Allowing racial discrimination and disparities affect many aspects of an individual’s life from obtaining a reasonable working and living wage, obtaining fair housing, equal treatment and fairness in the justice system and maintaining consistent behaviors and actions by those in authority positions amongst all individuals and not judge based on race or ethnicity. 

Reason 1: Racial Profiling 

Racial profiling can be described as unfair treatment or unconstitutional belief that the person of color committed an offense or illegal actions by individuals in positions of authority. This common action causes emotional stress, hardships, and anxiety/fear within people of color; it is often a justified fear amongst people of color because it could very well be a major factor in the fate or continued success with people of color. As a society we cannot change the past, but we can actively become involved in the transformation our future by working together to promote positive ideas and create new and inventive ways to decrease present discrimination and disparities amongst different ethnicities and races. There have been many studies over the last 30 years throughout the states still using capital punishment that has found that a person’s race or ethnicity play an important role in the outcome of death penalty cases (North Carolina Racial Justice Act). Within the justice system, African Americans are given higher sentences in comparison to Caucasians and statically make up the majority of individual’s incarcerated.

Caucasians make up 80% of individuals in capital punishment case and they also represent one-half of murder victims; furthermore, as of October 2002, only 12 Caucasians have been convicted of murder and executed when the victim was black, while the number of black defendants was overwhelmingly high with 178 black defendants convicted of murder and executed when the victims were Caucasian (Race and Death Penalty). Without a doubt, the data and numbers provide some evidence to the practices of the U.S. Justice system amongst races and only increase the amount of anxiety and stress for black people and their quality of life. Based on the Supreme Court decision of 1995 in the McCleskey v. Kemp case, researcher David Baldus concluded, “Perhaps most important, in my estimation,” he said, “is that race-of-victim discrimination does not raise the same sort of moral concerns as race-of-defendant discrimination — even though, from a constitutional standpoint, discrimination on the basis of any racial aspect of the case is illegitimate(Race of the Victim).” Given the fact that this decision could be based on the defendant's race and not the court case in its entirety, these court decisions should cause all American's to reevaluate the meaning of equality, where we stand individually on the definition, the current position our country is taken, and how we can change the current trend on equality. Ultimately, racial profiling is the wrong way to determine a person's future, no matter the crime. 

Reason 2: Illegal 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cements the ideal that discrimination of any kind is illegal. Additionally, The North Carolina Racial Justice Act of 2009 allows capital defendants to challenge their death sentences. If they can successfully prove that their race played a role in the court decision and sentences which effectively led to the prosecution seeking the death penalty and the courts sentencing the individual to the death penalty, based on the evidence submitted, their initial sentence could be commuted to life in prison. Ultimately, The North Carolina Racial Justice Act of 2009, sheds light on the issue and gives hope to defendants who felt persecuted by the justice system (North Carolina Racial Justice Act). This act can be seen as both positive or negative; it may reveal the truth of jury bias or it could shed light on the lack of evidence to support the defendant's claim of discrimination against them. According to Race and the Death Penalty, “four North Carolina death row prisoners have now had their sentences changed to life in prison without parole under the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA) after a judge determined that race played a part in their jury selection”. 

The Racial Justice Act has been in a pivotal force of action when used correctly and it has provided further evidence of racial disparities within our justice system. The MSU study found significant evidence that North Carolina prosecutors selected juries based on race and used peremptory strikes to remove qualified African-American jurors at more than twice the rate of excluded white jurors. Of the 159 inmates now on death row in North Carolina, 31 defendants were sentenced by all-white juries, while another 38 had only one minority on their jury (North Carolina Racial Justice Act.) The justice system has checks and balances put in place to prevent inequality or unfairness but they are usually abused or neglected; because of this continued practice, there are legal teams, studies, and the ability to look at cold cases that has helped minorities in the justice systems and has overturned many unjustified sentences.

Reason 3: Tradition

It is sad to acknowledge that it is a commonplace for an African American to receive worse treatment than a white person, but when you remember the time of slavery, you find that this is nothing new. 

African Americans were never given the same chances that whites had. If an African American is convicted of a federal offense, they, on average will serve more time, for the exact same crime, than a white person will. The conclusion of a new report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, found that black men received 19.1 percent longer sentences for the same federal crimes as white men between fiscal years 2012 and 2016( Black Men Get Longer Sentences). It is important that recognition be given to the issue of having one's ethnicity, as an African American male, used against them. According to the commission’s report, judges are less likely to show leniency to black than they are to white men. White men were also more likely to have their sentences reduced due to the judge’s discretion than were black men, and white men received larger reductions in sentences than did the black men( Black Men Get Longer Sentences ). This illustrates that the discrimination is exercised by both judges and juries. 

A 2014 study published by the University of Michigan Law School, for example, found that prosecutors’ initial charging decisions were a major driver of racial disparities in sentencing: When all else was held equal, black arrestees were 75 percent more likely to face a charge with a mandatory minimum sentence than white arrestees. This was the case even for the same crime, but prosecutors often have a variety of charges they can file( Black Men Get Longer Sentences). Additionally, evidence shows black males are more likely to be prosecuted at a higher rate than white males. Again, studies continue to demonstrate the disparities that black males are subjected to in the court system. 

Some may see it as having one less criminal in the world, ensuring a safer world for children to grow up in, and a contributing to a decrease in crime. I strongly disagree with this. Common argument against this position is that it is an illegal practice and that not all crimes committed are by African Americans. Black African Americans are put in a group or outcast as a human being. We all bleed the same color, so why treat blacks African Americans different? 

Studies show that African Americans, and black men in particular, are overrepresented as perpetrators of crime in U.S. news media (The Dangerous Radicalization of Crime in U.S. News Media). Conclusion: When it comes down to court rulings and sentencing by judges or juries, African American males often do not stand a chance. Race plays a much larger part than society lets on. African American males face racial discrimination and profiling in everyday life. Although there are laws to help prevent this, they are often ineffective if the victim of the discrimination cannot provide sufficient evidence of the discrimination. This should leave each of us with a question regarding our own personal morality.

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