Research on racial disparity shows that race dictates the prejudiced treatment of the defendant (Phillips, 2008). There seems to be racial prejudice as far as capital punishment is concerned. Studies have revealed that a Black offender is highly predisposed to get a death penalty if his victim is White, whereas it there is little probability for a White offender to get a similar sentence if his victim is Black (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). Moreover, Black offenders whose victims also happen to be Black also face a high chance of being sentenced to capital punishment. This prejudice puts Blacks at risk of being treated unfairly while their White counterparts go unscathed (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). This perception also increases the gap between the two races, which promotes the animosity towards each other.
There is unequal justice for Black victims who are killed by Blacks and Whites who kill Whites because studies have shown that prosecutors were likely to seek a death penalty for White offenders who kill Whites than for Black offenders who murder Blacks (Kansal, 2005). The discrepancy in the manner in which prosecutors deal with intra-racial offences is a violation of rights: either by denial of justice for Black victims who were killed by Blacks or through harsh sentencing for White offenders who had killed Whites (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). This kind of behaviour from the prosecution is an indicator that there is an unequal treatment in the manner in which intra-racial offences are dealt with, revealing that it is more essential for prosecutors to seek justice for White victims than for Black victims in New Jersey (McAdams, 1998).
The manipulation and obstruction of justice is common when White victims are concerned (Kansal, 2005). For instance, some prosecutors would add felony charges to homicide even when the police report did not contain such claims while others would remove felony charges that were contained in the police report. This behaviour leads to conflict between the police and the prosecution, obstruction of justice, and lack of confidence in the system (McAdams, 1998).
A study by Phillips (2008) deduced that Blacks were less likely to commit murder and other heinous crimes in Harris County, but the rate the DA pursued capital punishment on Black defendants was the same as that he pursued on White defendants. This could mean that Blacks suffer prejudice in the hands of the DA and in the overall justice system.
Capital punishment does not only apply to homicide it applies to other crimes too (McAdams, 1998). According to the drug kingpins’ law, individuals found guilty were to be sentenced to death. However, a report published in 1994 noted that even though 75% of those convicted were whites, and only 24% of them were blacks, the state imposed capital punishment on 78% of blacks, and only 11% on whites (Kansal, 2005). This is an indication that Black defendants suffered prejudice even in the hands of the federal system.
Estimates of the Extent of the Problem
A study conducted in 2001 revealed that the state of Ohio is notorious for this kind of racial disparity, and Black offenders with White victims have about three times the probability of being executed or facing life imprisonment than a White offender and a Black victim (4%). On the other hand, cases where the wrongdoer and the victim are White, the offender has up to 5% probability of facing capital punishment in Ohio (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). Similar findings were repeated in Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and there is an extremely high probability that a Black offender will be sentenced to life if his victim is White (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). About 5.9% of Blacks convicted of homicide involving White victims were likely to be put on capital punishment in comparison to only 1% if the offender is White with a Black victim. The same study also found that Whites who killed Whites were less likely to be put on death row in comparison to Blacks who killed Whites. In addition, there was 11% chance that a Black offender with a White victim would be convicted to a death penalty, as opposed to only 2% chance between a Black defendant and accuser. This shows that justice is strongly inclined to the victim’s race than the offender’s race (Williams & Holcomb, 2001).
There is an astonishing discrepancy in the manner in which some prosecutors handle intra-racial crimes. Some prosecutors ensure that White offenders who kill Whites are sentenced to death, yet they show little commitment to push for death penalties for Black offenders who kill Blacks (Williams & Holcomb, 2001). This seems to be an indicator that prosecutors seek justice for White victims than they do for Black victims according to a study conducted in Georgia. It has been estimated that between 1982 and 1986, 87% of White offenders put on death row had killed Whites; this is eleven times more than the number of Black offenders suffering capital punishment for killing Blacks in the same period (McAdams, 1998).
McAdams (1998) also cited that it was particularly common to find individuals being suspected of killing Whites going for full trial for the first degree murder compared to those suspected of murdering Blacks. The latter had a fair chance of being charged on lesser offences or were plea bargained.
A study conducted in Harris County in 2008 found that the DA treated defendants equally irrespective of their race and that he sought a death trial on 27%, 25%, and 25% of White, Hispanic, and Black defendants respectively (Phillips, 2008). However, the DA sought a capital trial for 30% of White victims, 26% of Hispanic victims, and only 23% of Black victims. Moreover, capital punishment was enforced on behalf of 23% and 21% of White and Hispanic victims respectively, and only 18% of Black victims (Phillips, 2008).
A special study carried out by the Department of Justice found that the US Attorney General convicted 159 offenders between 1995 and 2000, and about 48% of the White got pretrial waivers for the capital punishment through plea agreements. Unfortunately, only 25% of the minority defendants were allowed pretrial waivers (Kansal, 2005). These findings imply that offenders from minority races do not get justice for similar crimes as those committed by Whites; instead, they get harsh penalties.
Black is not the only race likely to be sentenced to death if found guilty of murdering a White person. For instance, a study conducted about the capital punishment system in Maryland by Kansal (2005) found that the jury does not consider the race of the victim before handing judgment, but offenders who kill Whites are three times over likely to get a death sentence than offenders who kill the other races. Moreover, the same study found that state attorneys tended to advocate for death penalties with White victims than with victims from other races (Phillips, 2008).
A study carried out by the Department of Justice deduced that between 1995 and 2000, attorneys had a tendency of seeking capital punishment on black defendants for victims who were not black than for black victims (Phillips, 2008). Attorneys were highly likely to seek capital punishment on 36% of black defendants whose victims were not black and only 20% of black defendants if the victim was black (Kansal, 2005).
Limitations / Weaknesses of the Estimates of the Problems
Although numerous studies show that more Blacks are often sentenced to death than White offenders, these findings may be unreliable because they make these comparisons with respect to the proportion of Blacks and Whites in the overall US population (Phillips, 2008). It is probable that the proportion of Black to White offenders on the death row seems higher because there are fewer Blacks in the US; therefore, it could explain why the number seems higher than that of White people (Phillips, 2008).
Racial disparity studies have focused on the male population, which explains why it is predominant among the male population. As far as the study on racial disparity in capital punishment among females is concerned, the findings should be interpreted with caution because there are incredibly few female offenders, not to mention that an even a smaller number of female offenders are actually executed (Greenlee & Greenlee, 2008). Therefore, findings of such a research may not be highly reliable as there are only a handful of female offenders. This explains why a majority of studies on female population use unusually small samples of female offenders.
A study conducted on female offenders found that 50% of Black females on death row had killed a White Greenlee & Greenlee, 2008). However, only 2% of those charged were executed, whereas 64% of them had their sentences reversed or commuted according to the survey conducted from 1973 to March 2007 (Greenlee & Greenlee, 2008). These findings raise questions on whether Black female offenders are treated differently from Black male offenders; thereby, introducing the gender aspect in the racial disparity argument. As a result, findings on racial disparity as far as the death penalty is concerned may not be conclusive when the gender aspect is introduced. Findings show that Black female offenders get preferential treatment over Black male offenders, casting doubts on blanket racial disparity.
In the event that a study finds that there are racial disparities in the sample used, it is particularly difficult to identify the cause of the disparities (Greenlee & Greenlee, 2008). Disparities may arise from the jury’s ruling; the prosecutor’s decision to go for trial rather than out-of-court settlements; the decision to accuse a suspect of capital murder; or even the decision to charge a suspect for a capital crime (Phillips, 2008).