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Capital Punishment and Race Factor in the US Essay

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Updated: May 25th, 2021


According to the recent statistics, capital punishment rates are declining in the United States. The number of death sentences is lowering due to many factors: changing ethical views, reforming laws, and a different view of human rights (Fleury-Steiner, Kaplan, & Longazel, 2015). Nonetheless, 30 states still have legislatures that allow capital punishment for crimes such as murder or treason, and many of these territories continue to put offenders on death row.

One of the main ethical concerns that are researched in the legal sphere is the connection between capital punishment and race. Here, the issue can be viewed from multiple points, although the ideology behind the situations is similar – racism serves as a force that has been impacting the statistics throughout the history of the country. Racial prejudice is especially visible in the number of white and nonwhite offenders receiving capital punishment as well as the race of their victim. Black offenders face a bias which is further aggravated if they commit a crime against a white person.

Topic Definition and Purpose

The discussion of the correlations between race and death penalty is essential in providing one with the most reliable data about patterns in which people act while deciding the fate of offenders. The existence of a racial bias changes the way people perceive the justice system since its altered representation of communities also affects other factors such as people’s economic and professional wellbeing. Black people who face racial prejudice have to fight against bias in workplace and court, facing unfair convictions and excessive punishments. Currently, the racial bias has been acknowledged and confirmed by many scholars, but its existence is still unmanaged in many states.

For example, Warden and Lennard (2017) find numerous examples of judges and jurors who disagree with accusations of being racist against offenders, although people and legal institutions criticize their behavior. Overall, the purpose of this research is to show that racism is a problem that affects all aspects of the legal system, creating disparages in outcomes based on the race of defenders, victims, and jurors.

History of Race and Capital Punishment in the United States

First of all, it is necessary to briefly discuss the history of race in the U.S. to provide a foundation for the bias and explain its causes. It is known that slavery and unequal rights are an inherent part of American history. During the era of slavery, black people did not have rights as citizens both in their everyday life and in court. Therefore, the legal system for white and nonwhite people was completely different. For instance, Tennessee, being one of the slave states, had varying punishments for slaves and white residents (Noe, 2015). Later, the state also instituted a different category of statutes for “free blacks” (Noe, 2015, p. 128).

After slavery was abolished, many states changed their laws to remove racist language from the documents. However, the implications remained unaltered, putting black people under different rules from white people. Beardsley, Kamin, Marceau, and Phillips (2014) find that it can be easy for prosecutors and jurors to continue employing racially prejudiced narratives while avoiding detection. Thus, the history of racism continues to impact the legal system in the U.S.

The opinion about death penalty has changed significantly over the years, although it is still viewed favorably by many individuals. For example, Hochkammer (1969) writes about the controversy of capital punishment in the 1960s, stating that the conflict between abolitionists and supporters cannot be mitigated easily. The author notes that the rate of death penalty convictions is lowering which is also true for contemporary statistics (Fleury-Steiner et al., 2017; Hochkammer, 1969).

Moreover, death penalty is no longer a public event but a measure to punish the most heinous crimes. Still, the use of it is debated to this day with many states abolishing, limiting, or simply not using death penalty as an option. For example, such states as New York have not utilized capital punishment for decades, although the laws of this state do not ban it explicitly. In other states, death penalty use is declining as well, but it has not disappeared altogether (Bazelon, 2016). Many judges, prosecutors, and ordinary people still view it as a necessary measure.

The Race of Victims, Offenders, and Prosecutors

After describing the history of race and capital punishment in the U.S., one may provide some statistical data to show how the two concepts are intertwined. The existence of different statutes for black and white people during the slavery era created a foundation for future racial biases putting white and nonwhite people on completely different paths for judgment. According to Levinson, Smith, and Young (2014), African-Americans still face harsher punishments than their white counterparts even if they committed similar crimes. The purpose of examining these data is to demonstrate racial bias in the legal system in regards to death penalty punishment.

The prejudice shows itself in all aspects – black offenders are more often put on death row than white criminals who receive life sentences without parole. For example, Warden and Lennard (2017) show that more than half of all offenders put on death row in the nineteenth century were black, while the African-American population did not exceed 15 percent of all residents (p. 218). This difference in numbers could not have appeared from simple crimes statistics as the prevalence of black offenders being subjected to capital punishment was substantially larger than their overall number.

Bazelon (2016) also provide statistics that reveal that in many states with existing laws about death penalty, a significant part of all defendants are black. Such territories as the Duval County, FL, had 81% of black defendants receive death penalty between 2010 and 2015, although the demographic makeup of the county suggests a white majority of around 60%. (Bazelon, 2016, para. 32). Thus, the inconsistency in punishments is clear to have racial implications rather than crime-based ones.

Furthermore, the race of the victim also affects the outcome of the crime, with white victims becoming a factor that contributes to capital punishment enforcement. This is also a bias that was formed during the period of slavery – black people were persecuted for the assault of white persons with the harshest forms of punishments (Steiker & Steiker, 2015). Similarly, the rates of convictions that end in capital punishment also feature black offenders of white victims more often than black offenders of black victims (Fleury-Steiner et al., 2017; Hans et al., 2015). Blume and Vann (2016) provide a similar calculation for South Carolina where out of 187 contemporary death sentences 81% were “imposed for the killing of a white victim” (p. 201).

Moreover, the scholars find that 34% of all death sentences featured a combination of “black defendant – white victim,” although they note that this is one of the rarest types of committed crimes (Blume & Vann, 2016, p. 202). These statistics suggest that persecutors ask for capital punishment for black defenders of white victims much more often than for white offenders and black offenders of black victims.

Finally, there exists a lack of balance between white and nonwhite jurors and judges which also leads to different conviction results. According to Hans et al. (2015), juries are influenced by the race of both the offender and the victim. The study reveals that white defendants were significantly more likely to receive a life sentence than black defenders who got capital punishment instead (to Hans et al., 2015).

On the other note, jury formation also leads to biased convictions since the majority of its members are usually white (Levinson et al., 2014). Bazelon (2016) highlights the fact that black jurors are almost absent in courts with death-penalty trials because they oppose capital punishment for all people. As a result, the jury, the prosecutor, and the judge are often predominantly white in cases of black defenders. While one may argue that the lack of diversity does not affect their decision, Steiker and Steiker (2015) state that presumably neutral laws are exercised differently for white and nonwhite offenders by white juries.


This research has proven that race continues to play a crucial role in the legal system of the U.S. Black people often suffer from injustices inflicted as an outcome of racial bias that overcomes the country’s overall declining rates of capital punishment.

The race of victims, jurors, and defenders matters in cases and black people encounter barriers on all levels of the legal process. The limitations put on jurors and prosecutors do not prevent them from exercising underlying prejudices and convicting black people to death penalty, even if a white offender would receive a life sentence in similar circumstances. The massive number of statistical examples suggests an apparent persistence of racial bias which requires the legal world to consider reforms and rethink the causes of choosing capital punishment.


Bazelon, E. (2016). There the death penalty still lives. The New York Times. Web.

Beardsley, M., Kamin, S., Marceau, J., & Phillips, S. (2014). Disquieting discretion: Race, geography & the Colorado death penalty in the first decade of the twenty-first century. University of Denver Law Review, 92(4), 431-452.

Blume, J. H., & Vann, L. S. (2016). Forty years of death: The past, present, and future of the death penalty in South Carolina (still arbitrary after all these years). Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy, 11, 183-254.

Fleury-Steiner, B., Kaplan, P., & Longazel, J. (2015). Racist localisms and the enduring cultural life of America’s death penalty: Lessons from Maricopa County, Arizona. Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, 66, 63-85.

Hans, V. P., Blume, J. H., Eisenberg, T., Hritz, A. C., Johnson, S. L., Royer, C. E., & Wells, M. T. (2015). The death penalty: Should the judge or the jury decide who dies? Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 12(1), 70-99.

Hochkammer, W. O., Jr. (1969). The capital punishment controversy. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 60(3), 360-368.

Levinson, J. D., Smith, R. J., & Young, D. M. (2014). Devaluing death: An empirical study of implicit racial bias on jury-eligible citizens in six death penalty states. New York University Law Review, 89, 513-581.

Noe, R. T. (2015). Tennessee’s capital punishment history and today’s merited reprieve for its death penalty. Lincoln Memorial University Law Review, 2, 126-155.

Steiker, C. S., & Steiker, J. M. (2015). The American death penalty and the (in) visibility of race. University of Chicago Law Review, 82(1), 243-294.

Warden, R., & Lennard, D. (2017). Death in America under color of law: Our long, inglorious experience with capital punishment. Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy, 13(4), 194-306.

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