Sentencing a person to die is the ultimate punishment. There is no coming back from the permanence of the death penalty.
In the U.S., the death penalty is currently authorized by the federal government, the military and 29 states. The primary rationale for using the death penalty is deterrence.
Nevertheless, for decades the death penalty has been popular. However, support for the death penalty has been declining over the past 25 years and is near historic lows. Critics point to issues such as inhumane killing procedures, a plunge in crime rates and the death penalty’s high cost.
I study the impact that public policies like the death penalty have on African Americans, and I see a problem that isn’t often discussed in the media: the significant racial disparity in public opinion about the death penalty.
The racially inequitable application of the death penalty was highlighted on Nov. 15, 2019, when, in an unexpected turn of events, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Rodney Reed less than one week before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites.
The case was racially charged. Reed, a black man, is accused of killing Stites, a white woman, and was found guilty by an all-white jury.
The Reed case is one of many capital murder cases that present an opportunity to critically examine the application of the death penalty. As director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, I lead an organization that is committed to the elimination of racial bias and disparities through promoting equitable public policies.
Since 1976, people of color have accounted for 43% of total executions and make up over half of inmates who are currently scheduled to be executed. In Texas, African Americans make up less than 13% of the population yet represent 44.2% of death row inmates. Nationally, African Americans make up 42% of death row inmates.
When both race and gender are considered, disparities in sentencing become even more pronounced. Homicides involving white female victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence than homicides with any other victim characteristics.
Disparity in beliefs
However, beyond the explicit examples of racial bias in the criminal justice system that typically get the most attention, there remains another, more subtle bias related to the beliefs held by jurors.
People who oppose the death penalty cannot serve on a murder case jury where the death penalty is a possibility. Only individuals who say they would consider the death penalty can serve.
When you examine the numbers behind support of the death penalty, a trend emerges.
This is consistent with a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that 59% of white people favor the death penalty, compared with 47% of Latino and 36% of black people. Among white people, evangelical Protestants show the strongest support for the death penalty, with 73% favoring it.
Prejudice and juries
Why do white people support the death penalty at much higher levels than black people?
According to research, one answer is racial prejudice. White Americans tend to associate criminality with racial minorities. In one study, researchers found that, after controlling for factors including education, family income, religion and political ideology, white people with stronger anti-black attitudes were more likely to support the death penalty.
It should come as no surprise that views about the criminal justice system diverge widely between black and white Americans, with black Americans being much more likely to see the system as racially biased.
Perhaps this explains why prosecutors, in spite of the illegality of excluding prospective jurors based on race, still use tactics to strike potential black jurors from the jury.
When juries are more racially diverse, that increases the likelihood that potential racism is discussed. What’s more, social science research indicates that all-white juries convict black defendants significantly more often than white defendants.
In my view, in capital murder cases, an all-white jury combined with white support for the death penalty stacks the odds against black male defendants like Rodney Reed.