In a landmark ruling to be officially released next week, the state Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in Connecticut. While the state legislature abolished capital punishment three years ago, lawmakers left death sentences in place for any inmates already on death row. The Supreme Court’s ruling will change that and abolish the death penalty for all prisoners.
A crucial part of the decision rested on the role racial bias plays in capital punishment sentencing. “It goes without saying,” wrote Associate Justice Palmer for the Court, “that the eighth amendment is offended not only by the random or arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, but also by the greater evils of racial discrimination and other forms of pernicious bias in the selection of who will be executed.”
Racial discrimination in the application of capital punishment has a long history in America. In Carol and Jordan Steiker’s article “The American Death Penalty and the (In)Visibility of Race,” researchers found that there has never been a time in American history – not even pre-Revolutionary America where comparatively few minorities lived in the towns of the colonies – when the death penalty was not applied disproportionately to black inhabitants.
This trend has continued since the reinstitution of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. In the last four decades, over half of death row inmates nationwide have been racial minorities. What is more concerning, however, is that in 82% of the cases in which the execution was carried out the victim was white. This is despite the fact African Americans are the victims of half of the murders that occur each year in the United States.
What makes the problem so difficult is that these disparities are often not the result of conscious, overt racism. Implicit biases might prevent a juror from considering evidence about the life and background of the accused in sentencing, for example. Racial stereotypes and unconscious fears of African-American violence can lead to imposing capital punishment on one defendant versus another. Another problem is that poverty and the lack of available resources for minority defendants can lead to poor representation in court. All of these lead to racial disparities in the use of the death penalty.
Worse yet, the racial biases of police officers, prosecutors, and judges all lead to racial disparities before a jury even hears the first piece of evidence. Studies have shown that the races both of the defendant and of the victim are highly significant factors in prosecutorial decisions about what penalties are sought.
The impossibility of eradicating racism in sentencing is a large part of why many – now including the Connecticut Supreme Court – oppose the death penalty. The key question is: is it ever possible to eliminate the discriminatory application of capital punishment? As the Court answered, “We do not believe that it is.”