The Effects of Race on Sentencing in Capital Punishment Cases
Throughout history, minorities have been ill-represented in the criminal justice system,
particularly in cases where the possible outcome is death. In early America, blacks were lynched
for the slightest violation of informal laws and many of these killings occurred without any type of
due process. As the judicial system has matured, minorities have found better representation but
it is not completely unbiased. In the past twenty years strict controls have been implemented but
the system still has symptoms of racial bias. This racial bias was first recognized by the Supreme
Court in Fruman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). The Supreme Court Justices decide that the
death penalty was being handed out unfairly and according to Gest (1996) the Supreme Court felt
the death penalty was being imposed "freakishly" and "wantonly" and "most often on blacks"
Several years later in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S.
153 (1976), the Supreme Court decided, with
efficient controls, the death penalty could be used constitutionally. Yet, even with these various
controls, the system does not effectively eliminate racial bias.
Since Gregg v. Georgia the total population of all 36 death rows has grown as has the
number of judicial controls used by each state. Of the 3,122 people on death row 41% are black
while 48% are white (Gest, 1996, 41). This figure may be acceptable at first glance but one must
take into account the fact that only 12% of the U.S. population is black (Smolowe, 1991, 68).
Carolyn Snurkowski of the Florida attorney generals office believes that the disproportionate
number of blacks on death row can be explained by the fact that, "Many black murders result
from barroom brawls that wouldn't call for the death penalty, but many white murders occur...